Christianity Today, October, 2012
The Regnerus Affair
The embattled sociologist talks to CT about the controversy over his study of homosexuality and parenting.
If you want to know how University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus's summer has gone, look no further than The Weekly Standard. On the cover of the conservative magazine's July 30 issue are two hooded henchmen impishly turning the gears on a medieval torture wheel holding Regnerus, sweating beads as he tries to stay in one piece. The cover copy—"Revenge of the Sociologists: The perils of politically incorrect academic research"—hints at the situation sparked by the publication of Regnerus's newest research as well as the broader political discourse over same-sex marriage.
The survey, known as the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), is remarkable in its scope. It's a random national sample, considered "the gold standard" of social science surveys. NFSS measures the economic, relational, political, and psychological effects on adults ages 18 to 39 who grew up in families where the father or mother engaged in homosexual behavior. Despite Regnerus's repeated caution that the NFSS does not account for stable same-sex marriages (since same-sex marriage as such didn't exist when the survey participants were children), he has undergone professional censure. Social Science Research conducted an internal audit on the peer-review process of the NFSS, and the University of Texas at Austin investigated Regnerus following allegations of "scientific misconduct." (The school has since cleared Regnerus of the allegations.) Regnerus agreed to an e-mail interview with Christianity Today associate editor Katelyn Beaty to set the record straight on the NFSS and its many discontents.
Other studies have been done on the well-being of children raised by same-sex couples, with many sociologists concluding there's no real difference between children raised by same-sex couples and those raised by heterosexual couples. Why was the NFSS needed at this time?
Most family scholars had, until recently, consistently affirmed the elevated stability and advantages [for children] of the married, heterosexual, biological, two-parent household, when contrasted with all other family "makes and models." Other types of family arrangements were perceived to fall short—even if not far short—in a variety of developmental domains such as educational achievement, behavior problems, and emotional well-being.
For the children of gay and lesbian Americans, however, social scientists have largely shifted their sentiment. Since 2001, and picking up steam more recently, scholars have been increasingly quick to declare "no differences," and some have even moved to suggest that same-sex parents may be more competent than a man and woman in a traditional family arrangement. Ten years is pretty speedy to overthrow a long-stable paradigm, and frankly, some of us found it a bit suspicious, so we decided to look into it ourselves.
I don't think there is a time-sensitive component to this study, other than it was time to evaluate what had become a rapidly-shifting consensus on the subject.
How does your methodology compare with those used in previous surveys on this topic?
This is the key area of distinction between my study and most others. Almost all studies that came before this one were small and "nonrandom." That is, we have no idea how similar most other studies' research participants are to the general population they seek to study. And with many previous studies, I think it's fair to be skeptical. For example, if you know you're participating in a small study on gay parenting and that it'll make the news and perhaps have political ramifications, I think it's fair for scholars to wonder whether such a study will yield valid, reliable data.
'Ten years is pretty speedy to overthrow a long-stable paradigm, and frankly, some of us found it a bit suspicious, so we decided to look into it ourselves.' - Mark Regnerus
The NFSS, on the other hand, is much larger than most others, and is a random sample of the population of American adults ages 18–39. I focused not on their parents' sexual orientation—after all, it was a quite different era back then—but on their parents' relationship behavior. So I compared how young adults whose mothers or fathers had a same-sex relationship fared when analyzed alongside other types of arrangements, including the traditional, biologically intact married mother and father.
Explain briefly how you identified "lesbian mothers" and "gay fathers" in the study. These are not established same-sex couples who together chose to adopt or use IVF, correct?
If by "established" you mean stable couples present for their child's entire growing-up years: The data allowed for stably-coupled gay or lesbian parents to emerge, but at least in the era I am assessing, it was uncommon. Moreover, so was surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology (ART). These are all pretty expensive, even today. Another scholar writing on this subject notes that "the literature on same-sex-couple parenting has tended to feature studies of the kind of women who can afford ART: white, upper-middle-class women." But that is the media stereotype of gay and lesbian parents, even though data from the National Study of Family Growth reveal that they're less apt to want children than nonwhite gay and lesbian parents. So the types of couples you are referring to could be in the data, although I did not ask the respondents about the circumstances of their own birth.
From other questions—such as whether your biological mother and father were ever married—I can discern an educated guess about their origins. A majority of such respondents were the product of a heterosexual union that eventually disintegrated. Some suggest these were "mixed orientation marriages," but I wouldn't be so quick to presume that. While the etiology of homosexuality is not under study here, questions about my categorizations seem tacitly to raise the subject of who counts as a lesbian mother or gay father, to say nothing of bisexuality. The study is, however, about what its title states: the adult children of parents who have, or have had, same-sex relationships. In hindsight, I wish I would have been even more vigilant than I was in making sure readers always understood this.
What would you say to religious and political groups that promote traditional marriage and want to use the NFSS results to "prove" that parenting by same-sex couples is damaging to children?
I am neither a theologian nor politically oriented, so I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else how to do their jobs. While social science cannot "prove" things, it can describe social reality. What the NFSS does describe is that the young-adult children of men and women who have had same-sex relationships appear more likely to have experienced problems, and in some cases continue to struggle, than those whose biological parents were and are still married. Why exactly this is the case is an important question that should continue to be explored and debated.
What problems in particular do young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex relationships encounter? Emotional, financial, spiritual?
They report a variety of challenges, especially if they witnessed elevated instability in their household. Most of them have seen some [non-parent adults] coming and going. Among other things, they are more apt to report financial and employment difficulties, to finish less schooling, feel more ambivalence about their family experiences while growing up, smoke more, have more run-ins with the law, and report more sexual partners and greater victimization than those children from biologically intact, stable marriages. I didn't include religion or spirituality in the published study.
'The study itself was neither intended to undermine nor to affirm any legal rights about same-sex marriage.' - Mark Regnerus
What are your personal convictions about marriage structures? Do those convictions introduce a bias into your research, as critics of late have charged?
Every researcher has biases. This is why good survey projects assure participants' anonymity and don't hint to their participants how they ought to answer. This helps allow social science to rise above the personal biases of researchers.
You note that every researcher has biases. How are biases informing the internal audit of your research currently being conducted by Social Science Research, specifically the person conducting the audit, sociologist Darren Sherkat? Didn't Sherkat, who supports gay marriage, publicly criticize your research before the start of the audit?
Yes. I won't fight fire with fire here, but that is true. And yet the audit concluded that the publication process for the study was not compromised. Scholars criticize each other all the time, but it seems to be more personal in this territory.
Does your study have anything to contribute to contemporary debates about the legalization and cultural acceptance of same-sex marriage—especially since the NFSS was retrospective?
The study itself was neither intended to undermine nor to affirm any legal rights about same-sex marriage. That said, the NFSS and other solid studies out there are a good source of information for orienting citizens, regardless of their own personal perspectives.
Looking back, do you think it was responsible as a researcher to receive funding for NFSS from the Witherspoon Institute and the National Organization for Marriage (nom)—two groups known for strong stances on traditional marriage?
No funding came from the National Organization for Marriage, but rather from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. [Editor's note: Critics of the NFSS have linked Witherspoon and Bradley to nom because Robert P. George, nom's chairman emeritus, has strong ties to the two institutions that helped fund Regnerus's study.] As I've noted in the text of the study and elsewhere, I have always operated without strings from either organization. No funding agency representatives were consulted about research design, survey contents, analyses, or conclusions. Any allegations that the funders might have improperly influenced me are simply false.
How do you understand your calling as a sociologist? What does sociology offer to a broader society that other professions can't?
Among other things, good sociology investigates what culture is, how social structures work, how certain ways of thinking and acting become "normal," how institutions shape our lives, and how social change happens. This may sound abstract and dull, but it's really a fascinating and important way of seeing and thinking about the world and our own lives. Those who apply themselves to wrestling with these kinds of issues often discover how interesting and important sociological analysis can be. And in the process, they often come to understand much more fully their own personal life experiences.