Gay Parenting and bad social science

So, in a busy day, I came across a number of referernces to this new study that concludes that kids raised by gay parents do not do as well as kids raised by straight parents.  Honestly, the first red flag I saw for this study was that for a finding of such political and cultural import this was published in a very weak journal, Social Science Journal, rather than a leading journal of Sociology.  And believe me, I know this is a weak journal as I’m published in it.  In a ranking of all journals publishing Political Science, it came in 134 out of 139.

Maybe kids raised in gay homes don’t fare as well, but this study certainly does not provide the basis to evaluate.  Will Saletan has a nice takedown:

These findings shouldn’t surprise us, because this isn’t a study of gay couples who decided to have kids. It’s a study of people who engaged in same-sex relationships—and often broke up their households—decades ago…

What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people. But that finding isn’t meaningless. It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights. We need to study Regnerus’ sample and fix the mistakes we made 20 or 40 years ago. No more sham heterosexual marriages. No more post-parenthood self-discoveries. No more deceptions. No more affairs. And no more polarization between homosexuality and marriage. Gay parents owe their kids the same stability as straight parents. That means less talk about marriage as a right, and more about marriage as an expectation.

Over at TNR, John Corvino makes the point of the study’s weakness in a most provocative way:

Question: What do the following all have in common?

A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women

A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children

A never-married straight male prison inmate who sometimes seeks sexual release with other male inmates

A woman who comes out of the closet, divorces her husband, and has a same-sex relationship at age 55, after her children are grown

Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor who was caught having drug fueled-trysts with a male prostitute over a period of several years

A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner

Give up? The answer—assuming that they all have biological or adopted adult children between the ages of 18 and 39—is that they would all be counted as “Lesbian Mothers” or “Gay Fathers” in Mark Regnerus’s new study, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” (NFSS)…

In other words, Regnerus’ “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” categories (unlike the “Intact Biological Family” Category) included children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and, notably, a large number from divorced parents. Regnerus then observes in the resulting data that the children of his “Lesbian Mothers” and “Gay Fathers” look less like children of married biological parents than they do like children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and divorced parents. Well, duh.

Wow, this is bad social science.  Definitely a reason this is in Social Science Journal and not American Journal of Sociology.  There’s surely a good study in this data, but Regnerus has not done it.  I’m honestly going to be quite curious to see how much of an impact this study makes.   For now, it doesn’t really tell us anything about whether having gay parents makes any difference for childrens’ outcomes, and that’s supposed to be the whole point.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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