Why the Regnerus gay parenting study matters

David Lampo Author, "A Fundamental Freedom"
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What do opponents of gay rights and same-sex marriage (SSM) do when they have no credible scientific evidence that heterosexual couples are better at parenting than same sex couples? They make stuff up, which is exactly what social scientist Mark Regnerus from the University of Texas did two years ago in a now-infamous “study” published in Social Science Research. The study matters, but not for the reasons its supporters claim.

Unlike most academic studies, carried out under rigorous, objective standards and then peer-reviewed, this one was bought and paid for by anti-gay conservatives at the Witherspoon Institute, a rightwing research institute in Princeton, New Jersey. They paid him $695,000 to conduct a study they hoped would prove that gays shouldn’t be permitted to marry because they don’t make good parents. The conclusions of the study were reached even before it began: children with gay parents don’t do as well as children raised by “traditional” couples.

Why should proponents of legal equality for gay and lesbian Americans care about Regnerus’s study? For one very important reason: it is now being used in a variety of court cases by opponents of SSM, most recent a challenge to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage by a lesbian couple with three children.

Anti-SSM activists had long lamented the fact that they had no credible studies proving that gays and lesbians make bad parents, thereby undermining one of the their most effective talking points. In fact, according to depositions in the Michigan case, that lack of evidence was discussed at meetings of anti-gay marriage activists hosted in 2010 by the Heritage Foundation. They agreed they needed academic studies to support their position, and they needed them fast. Enter Mark Regnerus, their hired gun and long-time anti-gay activist. The study was soon underway.

When it was published, however, the reaction from nearly everyone in the field was swift and conclusive: the study was worthless as science or as a guide to public policy because the conclusions drawn from the data were simply unfounded, based more on the wishful thinking of its author rather than on hard data. In fact, the study was so flawed in its methodology that it has been disavowed by every credible social scientist in the field, even the journal that published it!

The heart of the study, officially called the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), was a question that asked 3,000 young adults about their parents’ relationship histories during their childhood years. Of those, 248 reported that one of their parents had engaged in a homosexual relationship at some point in their lives. According to Dr. Regnerus, those children fared worse on a variety of behavioral and psychological measures than those who were raised by more traditional heterosexual parents.

But as his critics pointed out, and Regnerus reportedly acknowledged, “most of those who described a parent with same-sex history had experienced divorces by their [opposite-sex parents as children], and few of them had lived with a same-sex couple, undercutting any comparison with stable traditional families.” In fact, of the 175 respondents who had a mother who had engaged in a same sex relationship, only two actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for their entire childhood. Most experts in the field strongly reject the notion that any rational comparisons between the two sets of parents can be made from the data.

On March 21, federal district court judge Bernard Friedman, a Reagan appointee, overturned Michigan’s ban on gay marriage, writing that it violates gay couples’ constitutional right to equal protection, thus following in the footsteps of eight other federal judges who in recent months have overturned similar bans. But he went a step further: he criticized the “evidence” put forth by the opponents of SSM, especially Dr. Regnerus, writing that his study was “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration,” and adding that his supporters represent “a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social science fields.”

That stinging rebuke by Judge Friedman should serve as a warning to the anti-gay-marriage militants around the country. Their last line of defense, that same-sex marriage should be opposed for the sake of the kids, has been exposed for the fraud that it is, and Friedman’s pro-marriage decision will likely influence other court cases down the road.

David Lampo is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans National Board of Directors and the author of A Fundamental Freedom.