Study: Children Of Gay Parents Fare Poorly

People are freaking out about a new study showing that children of gay parents fare worse than children raised by their own biological mother and father. Before we look at the blowback, let’s look at what the study says according to its author Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. Over at Slate, he explains how he and his colleagues screened 15,000 American adults aged 18-39. They were asked if they grew up in a household where their mother or father had ever been in a same-sex relationship.

Social science (and I use the term “science” loosely here) has careened all over the place in recent decades when evaluating outcomes of children of gay parents. Not too long ago, it was conventional wisdom that intact, biological parent homes were ideal for children. Then there were some studies saying that non-conventional family forms make no difference in outcomes. (That’s changed. As a mother exploring adoption, I’ve been told repeatedly that our non-conventional family should expect different outcomes or at least prepare for them. Any massive disruption in a child’s life correlates pretty highly with increased problems as an adult.) In recent years, though, some studies have tried to make the case that gay parents are better than both biological parents at raising children. There are limits to all of these studies.

Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study (NFSS), an overview article about which appears in the July issue of the journal Social Science Research, has some interesting results:

The basic results call into question simplistic notions of ”no differences,” at least with the generation that is out of the house. On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents. Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things. Why such dramatic differences? I can only speculate, since the data are not poised to pinpoint causes. One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it. The children of fathers who have had same-sex relationships fare a bit better, but they seldom reported living with their father for very long, and never with his partner for more than three years.

Regnerus goes into a bit of detail as to why he believes the NFSS is a better study than others, which he chalks up to better methodology. Previous studies used self-selected samples, including from people who knew the studies could be used for political ends. And since large scale surveys were difficult to do, we saw a couple of data-collection efforts yielding interesting data on how well-educated, white lesbian partners were doing — and comparisons to the general population. While those studies were also quite limited in what they showed, we didn’t quite see the outrage over them compared to what this study has provoked.

Anyway, even though the data seem pretty shocking, Regnerus speculates that the lack of stability among his sample is the real issue. Remember, this is not a comparison of all children of a gay parent with all other children. This is a comparison of children with a gay parent to children in highly stable heterosexual unions. As Regnerus himself notes, the children of gay parents show results more akin to children of divorced or single parents.

And that sort of makes sense, particularly given the age of the people he was surveying. Many of these children were born at a time when long-term relationships between homosexuals were not exactly encouraged (although the study does control for some of that). He also notes that even though he screened a fairly large number of people, the data set didn’t include enough children of gay parents raised in significantly long-term relationships to crunch good results.

The study is fairly limited and doesn’t speak to the portion of the gay population that is currently obtaining children via adoption, IVF or surrogacy. Some people are upset about that. Presumably future studies will look at that and hopefully, when they do, they’ll use better methodology than we’ve seen in recent years. But most studies — and particularly good studies — are limited. They don’t explain all of life’s mysteries or tell us what social policies we should embrace.

As one scholar put it, agreeing that there were some limitations to the study, “If the Regnerus study is to be thrown out, then practically everything else in the field has to go with it.”

Probably the best response to the study came from Will Saletan, also at Slate. He argues that the study’s discovery of gay parents’ instability suggests the need for social policies that favor stability among same-sex couples. He acknowledges that an intact biological family remains the best environment for raising a child but that redefining marriage to include same-sex unions could also be helpful. He ends his piece:

The study’s main takeaway, according to Regnerus, is that kids of gay parents have turned out differently from kids of straight parents, and not in a good way… But the methodology and findings, coupled with previous research, point to deeper differences that transcend orientation. Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home. If that’s good advice for straights, it’s good advice for gays, too.

And I think we can agree with that. Parents need reminders that stability in a child’s life is important and crucial. We can’t achieve it perfectly, of course, but we can aim toward it.

(Photo: Dubova/Shutterstock)

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