None of those seem to be true of the latest work from Mark Regnerus, called the “New Family Structures Study” (a title that is itself misleading), which he writes about at Slate. It purports to show the very harmful effects of having gay and lesbian parents. This would be in contradiction to a whole series of studies in recent years that showed children in those families doing very well. Attacking the methodology of a study whose conclusions you don’t like can be a lazy default reaction. But, in this case, the way it was conducted is so breathtakingly sloppy that it is useful only as an illustration of how you can play fast and loose with statistics.
The study, of fifteen thousand adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-nine, turned on this question:
S7. From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?
Yes, my mother had a romantic relationship with another woman
Yes, my father had a romantic relationship with another man
A yes—even a single “romantic relationship”—put the person in the category of child of gay or lesbian parent, and excluded them from the category of intact biological families, regardless of their actual living situations. (And what does that yes mean? Sex once in a bar? An infatuation from a distance?) Regnerus says that he chose this question because he doesn’t want to get into sorting out who’s really gay—and that can be a complicated issue, to which he, unfortunately, has an absurd response. Because of how the study is set up, any stress to a child from living with a married man and woman, one of whom had ever had a same-sex affair of any kind, would be ascribed to having a gay or lesbian parent, and statistically erased from the analysis of “mom and pop” families. (Will Saletan and Ta-Nehisi Coates have good critiques of the study; Saletan points out that the study had conservative funders.)
It also turned out that most of the adults that the study considered products of gay or lesbian parents were not, for the most part, raised by gays or lesbians. Two hundred and fifty-three people said “yes” to question S7. A hundred and seventy-five said that their mother had had a relationship of some kind. As John Corvino notes at TNR, “Only 42 percent of respondents reported living with a ‘Gay Father’ and his partner for at least four months—and less than 2 percent reported doing so for at least three years.” Less than two per cent of those (two people, three?) said that their whole childhood was spent with their mother and her lesbian partner. On the basis of these distorted samples, Regnerus tells us that “28 percent of the adult children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships are currently unemployed” and that “the young-adult children of women in lesbian relationships reported the highest incidence of time spent in foster care (at 14 percent of total, compared to 2 percent among the rest of the sample).” Expect to see those numbers thrown around. Keep in mind what they don’t mean.
And also remember what they do mean: if this study shows anything, it’s not the effect of gay parenting, but of non-, or absentee parenting. The numbers are so clumsy that it’s hard to generalize, but one can reasonably guess that there are, buried in them, stories of parents who left or were separated from their children, or households that fell apart, because, eighteen to thirty-nine years ago, someone’s first try at an adult life involved a heterosexual relationship, even if that wasn’t sustainable. As Saletan puts it, the study “doesn’t document the failure of same-sex marriage. It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage.” We already know that there are benefits to stability—which is what same-sex marriage advocates have been saying all along. If your only question is how to help children, then same-sex marriage remains a solid answer. Look anywhere, even with tools as ill-designed as in this study, and you can find lonely children, and lonely parents, too. You can also find families held together by respect and love—and deserving of both.