New Volleys in the Gay Parenting Wars

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Is the discussion over gay parenting becoming the abortion debate of the new era?

In the days since the release of a controversial study finding that children of gay parents fare worse than those of straight, married parents, the discussion over the results has reached ear-piercing levels. Intemperate words have been spoken. Accusations have been flung. And — in the roundhouse of academic fisticuffs — a competing study has been released.

The initial New Families Structure Study (NFSS), conducted by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, found that the adult children of parents who have had same-sex relationships did worse socially, economically and psychologically than children raised in intact biological families. Based on the results, Regnerus concluded that the widely held notion that gay parenting is no different from straight parenting when it comes to children’s well-being was wrong.

It wasn’t long, however, before the NFSS, which was conducted very differently than the research that came before, was savaged like an old steak in a wolf pit. It’s “junk science” that “inflicts harm on loving families,” said GLAAD President Herndon Graddick. The “so-called study doesn’t match 30 years of scientific research,” noted Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Equality Council warned of “flawed methodology and misleading conclusions all driven by a right-wing ideology.” Even the New Yorker called it “breathtakingly sloppy.” Ooh, snap.

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What made Regnerus’ study different and stronger than the ones that came before was that it was nationally representative; it looked at a whole group of people, among whom some were gay and some were straight. So, as far as the recruitment of the study group went, it compared like with like. Previous studies were “snowball studies”; for example, they relied on a small number (fewer than 80) of lesbian mothers who were recruited through lesbian networks and bookstores and were therefore likely to be more activist and educated, and then compared them with heterosexual families recruited in a different way.

What made Regnerus’ study different and weaker than the ones that came before was that the nationally representative sample yielded so few stable gay couples. Only two children of gay parents in the survey were raised by the same couple their whole lives. Only eight were raised by a couple who had been together longer than 10 years. These children were compared with those who grew up in stable homes with still-married straight parents. Regnerus also scrounged together a sample size of 160-odd by widening the definition of “gay parents” to parents who had ever had a gay relationship. So, in this ways, it was not comparing like with like.

Regnerus noted this at a press lunch for the study and in his report. However, some of the nuance was lost in the subsequent headlines, outbursts, polemical screeds and even in those summaries provided by his funders, which are socially conservative organizations. (For a nice even tempered discussion of the issues, go here.)

Then, on June 20, new research was released that suggested that the children of lesbians who do not have a male role model in their lives seem to suffer no ill consequences. Whether male or female, they seem to have traits characteristic of their gender and a normal level of psychological adjustment. “No differences were found in the well-being of those with and without male role models, or between girls and boys,” said lead author Henny Bos of the University of Amsterdam. “There was no empirical evidence suggesting that boys require a same-sex parent, or male role model, to develop a healthy psychological well-being.”

And in a blow that seemed to be aimed squarely at Regnerus, the study’s co-author Dr Nanette Gartrell, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute, noted crisply that, “This study is part of a growing body of research that evinces the positive psychological well-being of children reared in planned lesbian families.”

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Bu the new study, which appeared in Gender & Society, used the same two-mom households that had been used in previous snowball studies. These are children raised in what’s known as “planned lesbian families” — that is, the children were wanted and their mothers took deliberate steps to have them. This point makes the whole brouhaha over the study samples feel unseemly, as if it were a contest to see who could find the most “normal” lesbians.

In the latest volley, some academics have stepped up to Regnerus’ defense, noting that there are other studies that support his findings and that he seemed to be asked to meet a higher standard than some of the studies than came before him. “We think that the Regnerus study…has helped to inform the ongoing scholarly and public conversation about same-sex families in America,” wrote Byron Johnson, a sociologist at Baylor University’s Institute For Studies of Religion, and 20-plus co-signees, not all of whom are social conservatives.

The vituperativeness of the debate, while entertaining, does seem to obscure the one glaringly obvious fact emerging from the NFSS: that many American families are unstable, for reasons to do much more with poverty, health and education than sexuality. And that instability clouds American children’s future. Could we maybe get back to that?