Mark Regnerus

The Right's Favorite Anti-Gay Study Is Discredited Once Again

One of the anti-gay movement’s favorite pieces of ammunition is a 2012 study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus purporting to find that the children of gay and lesbian people are more likely to suffer negative outcomes, including drug abuse, poor school performance, and child abuse.

As soon as Regnerus’s “New Family Structures” study was released, fellow social scientists began picking apart Regnerus’s data, pointing out that barely any of the people that he interviewed had actually been raised by same-sex couples and that he failed to control for factors like family instability. Regnerus himself has acknowledged that his study didn’t actually say anything about parenting by stable same-sex couples, but that hasn’t stopped the anti-gay right from using it to bolster its case against marriage equality…and Regnerus from providing testimony in court cases against gay marriage.

This week, the Daily Texan, the newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, published documents it had obtained from an internal review of Regnerus’s study that found a series of methodological flaws to the research.

The findings were summed up by the dean of UT’s College of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, who noted that while the school wouldn't conduct an ethics investigation into Regnerus's work, “no policy implications about same-sex parenting should be drawn from the study”:

The post-tenure review committee met again in January of this year and was tasked by Diehl with considering only methodological problems. Based on this charge, the committee found the following, as summarized and endorsed by Diehl: “Valid methodological concerns have been raised. … A key one is this: Because the design of the study ensured that the parental same-sex relationship variable was confounded with the family structure stability variable, it is not possible to conclude that the different life outcomes between the two groups were caused by the parental relationship variable.” Diehl, citing this finding and Regnerus’ original caution that the article did not deal with same-sex marriage legal rights, agreed that “no policy implications about same-sex parenting should be drawn from the study.” But the fact is Regnerus did use those findings in court.

Specifically, UT’s review found what other critics had noted: that the Regnerus study was not about same-sex parenting, but about family instability. From Diehl’s summary:

- The design of the NFS [New Family Structures] study survey instrument guaranteed that any participant who reported that their parent participated in a same-sex romantic relationship would have also experienced some form of family instability.

-Increased likelihood of negative outcomes for children who experience family instability are well-documented within existing scholarly literature.

Nobody is arguing that it isn’t difficult to find large-scale data about children raised by same-sex parents – even Regnerus has acknowledged some of his study’s shortcomings. But the problem with the Regnerus study is that the anti-gay Right continues to insist it proves a case against marriage equality  – no matter how often that interpretation is debunked.

Mark Regnerus Defends Flawed Research On Same-Sex Parenting

Back in 2012, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus published a study claiming that children raised by same-sex couples are more likely to be molested, abuse drugs and alcohol, do poorly in school, and experience any number of other maladies. The study quickly made its way into anti-LGBT talking points around the world, even as Regnerus’ fellow academics began to find serious problems with his methodology.

The main issue with Regnerus’ work was that he based his conclusions on same-sex parenting on respondents who said their parent had been in a same-sex relationship at some point when they were a child – not necessarily adults who had been raised by a same-sex couple. Ultimately, only two of the people he studied were actually raised by same-sex couples. He also failed to control for destabilizing childhood events like divorce. Sociologist Darren Sherkat summarized the problems with the Regnerus study in a 2013 interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center:

The key measure of gay and lesbian parenting is simply a farce. The study includes a retrospective question asking if people knew if their mother or father had a “romantic” relationship with someone of the same sex when the respondent was under age 18. This measure is problematic on many levels.

Regnerus admits that just two of his respondents were actually raised by a same-sex couple, though I doubt that he can even know that, given his limited data. Since only two respondents were actually raised in gay or lesbian households, this study has absolutely nothing to say about gay parenting outcomes. Indeed, because it is a non-random sample, this study has nothing to say about anything.

It failed to take into account normal family effects on wellbeing, to control for known​ sources of positive or negative outcomes. Indeed, since he only had two stable lesbian “couples” (or at least a young adult who said that, retrospectively, in a non-random, convenience sample), he instead just constructed differences from a group of people who were raised in unstable environments. Sexuality has nothing to do with that.

Then, earlier this year, Catholic University professor Paul Sullins published a paper with conclusions similar to those put forth by Regnerus...and similar methodological flaws.

As Emma Green wrote in “The Atlantic” recently, most social science “suggests that there are no differences between kids raised in stable households by gay or straight parents” — in other words, most scientists are finding that it’s the stability of their household, not their gender of the parents, that most affects the wellbeing of kids.

But now Regnerus is defending the findings of his and Sullins’ studies by arguing essentially that families headed by same-sex couples are inherently unstable — so there is no need to control for stability in studying the wellbeing of children raised in by same-sex parents. Regnerus told World Magazine this week that divorce is “still, so far as I can tell, the primary means by which a child comes to be in a same-sex household,” so “I think we should evaluate reality as it exists, not complain about the ideal data situation that does not”:

Critics of Sullins’ study claim it can’t tell us anything meaningful about same-sex parenting because it includes children of divorce, who are themselves more likely to suffer from emotional, behavioral, and academic problems. In order to fairly represent gay parents, critics seem to suggest, surveys should only include children who did not experience divorce and were raised from infancy by stable gay couples. In other words, the childhoods Lopez and Barwick experienced should be tossed out of the data pool.

But such “ideal” same-sex parent situations are rare and would be difficult to measure using a random representative survey. Besides, is it fair to ignore the very factor that often precedes same-sex parenting situations: divorce?

“[Divorce] is still, so far as I can tell, the primary means by which a child comes to be in a same-sex household,” said Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas at Austin sociologist whose own survey of same-sex households in 2012 found children of gay parents were more likely to be unemployed, depressed, unhealthy, promiscuous, and to have a negative view of their childhood. “I think we should evaluate reality as it exists, not complain about the ideal data situation that does not.”

It’s not surprising that since same-sex marriage — and the child custody rights that come with that marriage status — is a relatively new development there isn’t a huge pool of data on children raised by married same-sex couples. But that doesn’t mean, as Regnerus suggests, that sociologists should simply conflate same-sex parenting with household instability.

Anti-Gay Mega-Donor Sean Fieler Is Funding Mark Regnerus' New Think Tank

Last year, University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus — author of a widely panned study on same-sex parenting that is nonetheless frequently cited on the Religious Right — helped launch a new group called the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, which has since been publishing his research on topics including pre-marital sex, divorce, religion among college students and masturbation.

According to tax records filed this summer, the Austin Institute receives much of its funding from one donor: New York hedge fund honcho and social conservative mega-donor Sean Fieler.

The 2013 tax return for Fieler’s Chiaroscuro Foundation reports two grants to the Austin Institute, totaling $250,000. Although the public copy of Chiaroscuro’s tax return obscures the dates of its fiscal year, the organization’s 2010 return indicates that its tax year runs from January through December.

Meanwhile, the Austin Institute’s return reports that it took in just $205,000 in contributions between February and June 2013, indicating that a significant portion of its initial funding came from Fieler’s charity.

Fieler’s funding of the Austin Institute shouldn’t come as a surprise. To begin with, he is a trustee of the Witherspoon Institute, the Princeton-based think tank that kicked in $700,000 for Regnerus’ now infamous “New Family Structures” study. The study claimed to show that children raised by gay and lesbian parents suffer all sorts of harmful consequences like drug use and abuse, despite only actually studying two people raised by same-sex couples.

According to the Austin Chronicle, the new group was quickly dubbed “Witherspoon Institute South” — a name stemming from its staff’s plentiful ties to the Witherspoon Institute and the Religious Right.

The Austin Institute grants were among the biggest expenditures last year by Fielder’s Chiaroscuro Foundation, many of which went to groups fighting marriage equality and abortion rights. This year, recipients include Americans United for Life ($20,000), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty ($260,000), the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), which fights pro-choice and LGBT rights initiatives at the U.N. ($20,000), the National Abstinence Education Foundation ($50,000) and the Susan B. Anthony List ($40,000). As ThinkProgress noted yesterday, Fieler’s foundation also gave $50,000 last year to Morality in Media for its increasingly quixotic anti-porn campaign.

In 2012, the foundation gave $20,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, but seems to have snubbed the group in 2013.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation is just the beginning of Fieler’s influence: Last month, RH Reality Check delved in detail into Fieler’s political spending, including his funding of the American Principles Project and his hand in political races across the country.

While Regnerus’ research at the Austin Institute has so far made less of a splash than his faulty same-sex parenting study, he has continued to lend his voice to the effort to stop marriage equality, including testifying on behalf of a same-sex marriage ban in Michigan this year. (That move caused some of his UT colleagues to distance themselves from his work.)

The Austin Institute’s most noticeable contribution so far is a viral YouTube video applying a pop-economics veneer to the Religious Right’s favorite target, the sexual revolution. The video explains (in economic terms, of course) how contraception led to women turning against each other while men became video-game playing slobs — the only solution to which is for women to band together to withhold sex until marriage.

And the Austin Institute seems primed to provide more research to conveniently reinforce the Religious Right’s policy views — a solid investment for a donor like Fieler.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the Bradley Foundation, a conservative group that includes the Witherspoon Institute's Robert George on its board and that also helped to fund Regnerus' "New Family Structures" study, also reported a $100,000 grant to the Austin Institute last year.

Regnerus Study Backer Acknowledges That Marriage Equality Creates Family Stability

Updated

Buried in a National Catholic Register report on the biannual meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops this week is the surprising revelation that Brad Wilcox, one of the researchers behind Mark Regnerus’ infamously flawed study of same-sex parenting, admitted to attendees that most social scientists have found “no difference” between “a stable same-sex family and a stable heterosexual family.”

And when a Washington state bishop compared same-sex marriage to cohabitation, Wilcox responded that data suggests “when same-sex marriage is legalized and it is given cultural support, it will be as stable as heterosexual marriage" and that married same-sex couples “are more likely to have stable relationships when the legal regime is more supportive of their relationships.” 

Following his talk, Wilcox took a number of questions from bishops on the floor of the meeting. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput asked why, if marriage is so valuable for economic success, same-sex marriage is being legalized in so many states.

"Most of the scientists would say that there's no difference ... between a stable same-sex family and a stable heterosexual family," replied Wilcox, noting that those scientists might consider stability the "key factor, not other issues that might relate to a child's well-being."

Yakima, Wash., Bishop Joseph Tyson asked why same-sex marriage is not considered by the studies Wilcox cited to be as dangerous as cohabitation.

"I think that the assumption ... is that when same-sex marriage is legalized and it is given cultural support, it will be as stable as heterosexual marriage," Wilcox replied.

"Is there data to back that?" Tyson asked.

"The data suggest that same-sex couples -- and this is really preliminary -- are more likely to have stable relationships when the legal regime is more supportive of their relationships," Wilcox replied.

This acknowledgment of mainstream social science’s assessment of gay and lesbian parenting is important coming from someone who helped to shape the Regnerus study, the discredited attack on same-sex parenting that is still cited widely by marriage equality opponents. We wrote last year:

Documents obtained by the American Independent this year revealed that the Witherspoon Institute was closely involved in Regnerus’ work through the go-between of W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia who at the time ran Witherspoon’s program on family, marriage and democracy, which had recruited Regnerus to conduct the study on LGBT parents. Regnerus in turn hired Wilcox on contract to assist him with data analysis on the study. Along with working with Regnerus on his skewed interpretation of the data, Wilcox urged Regnerus to release the study in time to influence the U.S. Supreme Court in its upcoming marriage equality cases. (Regnerus later signed onto an amicus brief seeking to influence both cases, which extensively cited his own research).

Wilcox’s remark echo the Proposition 8 trial testimony of David Blankenhorn, in which he acknowledged the stability provided by marriage for same-sex couples. Blankenhorn later became a full-fledged marriage equality advocate.

UPDATE: The bishops’ group has posted video of the conference. It’s clear from the video that Wilcox isn’t completely on board with the social science on same-sex marriage, but  does acknowledge the consensus among his colleagues.

Interestingly, Wilcox did not mention same-sex marriage at all until it was brought up in the question-and-answer session.
 

Right Wing Round-Up - 4/1/14

Right Wing Round-Up - 3/5/14

Right Wing Round-Up - 3/4/14

Right Wing Leftovers - 2/24/14

  • Apparently, the First Amendment requires allowing groups to place Bibles in hotel rooms because not doing it is "the very viewpoint discrimination and hostility towards religion that the First Amendment prohibits."
  • Joseph Farah has turned on Ann Coulter.
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott unite in trying to convince Sean Hannity to move to Texas.
  • In news that will shock nobody, Mark Regnerus' anti-gay study was orchestrated and funded by anti-gay groups.
  • Finally, Bryan Fischer recalls the time Satan inflicted him with a panic attack that almost caused him to strip off his clothes and go running through the woods.

Right Wing Round-Up - 2/19/14

Right Wing Leftovers - 1/30/14

  • The Southern Baptist Convention's ERLC will host a conference on "the gospel and human sexuality to equip pastors and church leaders to speak to these critical issues in their own congregations" that is going to feature Mark Regnerus.
  • Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry are in need of prayer.
  • The Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders is out with its long run-down of incredibly vague predictions about what the world will experience in 2014.
  • FRC prays against the legalization of marijuana: "May the American people come to their senses to reject this trend and reverse it!"
  • Finally, Gary Cass delivers a "Spiritual State of the Union" address; it is not good: "[A] small but militant minority is hell bent on destroying all vestiges of our Christian heritage. Marxist / Secularists have prosecuted their 100 year Cultural Jihad to infiltrate the media, education and politics, especially the courts, and impose their secular fundamentalism. The election and re-election of Barack Obama is sobering proof of their formidable influence."

Globalizing Homophobia, Part 3: A New Life for Discredited Research

This is the third post in a four-part series exploring how American right-wing groups have supported Russia’s recent spate of anti-gay laws and its crackdown on LGBT citizens.

When Russian lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlyov introduced a bill that would allow the state to remove children from openly gay parents – classifying homosexuality along with drug abuse and child abuse as offenses that merit the loss of custody – gay rights activists noticed something interesting in the text of the bill.

Zhuravlyov, who insisted, “In the case when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous,” had in the text of his bill quoted extensively from a 2012 study conducted by University of Texas researcher Mark Regnerus that purports to show that having LGBT parents harms kids.

New evidence shows that the Regnerus study also influenced the architects of Russia’s ban on gay “propaganda” and its ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by gay couples and single people living in countries that allow marriage equality.

In the June 13 joint Duma committee hearing on the proposed gay adoption ban and a related “traditional values” roundtable discussion – attended by National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown and a number of far-right French activists – Regnerus’ research played a central role.

In her speech at the committee hearing, Yelena Mizulina, the chairwoman of the Duma’s committee on family, women and children and the sponsor of the “propaganda” bill, cited Regnerus to advocate for the adoption measure, claiming that Regnerus had provided the only “reliable” research on same-sex parents:

At the same time, the American scholar Mark Regnerus, who carried out an extensive study over the course of one and a half years of 3,000 people who had been raised in same-sex families, showed the opposite, and the data are absolutely stunning, they are published. They called for him to be fired from the university in Texas [where he worked]. An independent assessment was ordered, an independent commission, who totally confirmed the scientific validity of the study’s representativeness and the reliability of its conclusions.

Mizulina went on to hypothesize that gay parents would teach their children to be gay just as alcoholics would likely have children who drink, and compared the “social experiment” of marriage equality to the experiment of communism in Russia:

It is established that if the parents in a family smoke, their child will likely smoke. And in these families the share of children who smoke when they become adults is higher. If parents drink, the probability that children in these families will drink is much higher than in families where parents do not drink.

Why and on what basis is there an exception regarding imitation of the behavior of parents when we’re talking about homosexuality? Why? Where do they get that children will not imitate this particular behavior? It’s untenable, even without scientific studies. But scientific studies would of course be important here, too.

But this type of experiment, this sexual revolution as they call what is happening in Europe today, is a social experiment that the West is conducting on its own children.  Russia has had enough of social experiments.

Last century we had social experiments where the family was destroyed. It was argued that there would be no more families, that this institution would die out, and many others. And the West watched and did the opposite.

Mikhail Zoplev, a member of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, had his own take, claiming that gay couples “renounce the ability to have their own children, so they say, ‘Give us those of others.’”

Why? By creating such pair--man with man or woman with woman—they renounce the ability to have their own children, so they say, ‘Give us those of others.’ What does this represent? It seems to me some very twisted logic.

A news report about the meetings on the TV Tsentr channel included an interview with Evgenii Makushkin, a Russian Ministry of Health and Social Development psychologist, who insisted that “a same-sex pair may raise a child with a host of sexual problems.” His evidence? An American study published in the Social Science Research journal – the Regnerus study.

Makushkin: The life principles of such a child [who has been raised by homosexual parents] may be completely distorted. The child develops psychological problems, problems learning materials in school, problems integrating with peers, problems orienting themselves during puberty. Towards whom will a child who has been raised in a homosexual family orient? It’s probably that a change in sexual orientation may even occur. This is indeed a new problem. In this way, a same-sex pair will produce a child with a host of sexual problems.

Voiceover: According to the results of a study by American psychologists, 31% of children in lesbian families and 25% of children in gay families were forced to have sex with their so-called parents In typical families in the US, this indicator stands at 8%. Almost one-third (28%) of children raised by gays or lesbian mothers cannot find steady employment.

At a July 4 meeting in France, a leader of the anti-gay group French Spring praised Mizulina for her adept use of the Regnerus study in pushing anti-gay measures.

The Regnerus study has captured the imaginations of anti-gay activists throughout the world. But in reality, it is complete bunk. Shortly after Regnerus published his work, the narrative behind it unraveled. It turned out that Regnerus had relied on a slew of flawed methodology and had only studied two people raised by same-sex couples. As one sociologist charged with auditing Regnerus’ study for an academic journal put it: “Since only two respondents were actually raised in gay or lesbian households, this study has absolutely nothing to say about gay parenting outcomes. Indeed, because it is a non-random sample, this study has nothing to say about anything.”

But Regnerus had never intended to conduct an honest assessment of the outcomes of children raised by gay and lesbian parents. Instead, Regnerus was an ideologue with a point to make and funders on the Religious Right were ready to help him make it. Regnerus received significant funding for his study from Religious Right groups: $700,000 from the Princeton-based anti-gay Witherspoon Institute and over $90,000 from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation. Both groups have deep ties with the movement to prevent marriage equality: National Organization for Marriage cofounder Robert George also cofounded the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the board of the Bradley Foundation. In addition, George helped draft the Manhattan Declaration, a religious conservative manifesto that has drawn the support of a who’s who of Religious Right leaders.

Documents obtained by the American Independent this year revealed that the Witherspoon Institute was closely involved in Regnerus’ work through the go-between of W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia who at the time ran Witherspoon’s program on family, marriage and democracy, which had recruited Regnerus to conduct the study on LGBT parents. Regnerus in turn hired Wilcox on contract to assist him with data analysis on the study. Along with working with Regnerus on his skewed interpretation of the data, Wilcox urged Regnerus to release the study in time to influence the U.S. Supreme Court in its upcoming marriage equality cases. (Regnerus later signed onto an amicus brief seeking to influence both cases, which extensively cited his own research).

Wilcox’s interest in the Regnerus study went beyond influencing American law and public opinion. He is also active in the Illinois-based World Congress of Families, which promotes anti-gay policies throughout the world. This year, Wilcox was a keynote speaker at WCF’s summit in Sydney, along with leaders from the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America.

When word began to spread that Regnerus’ study was playing a key role in the Russian anti-gay movement, Regnerus backtracked, saying that the Russian effort to remove children from biological parents who are gay or lesbian was a “misuse” of his research.

While actively snatching children from gay parents might have been a step too far for Regnerus, he hasn’t stopped pushing his flawed findings around the globe. In fact, the same day that Regnerus claimed that Russian lawmakers had gone too far with his study, the anti-gay Alliance Defending Freedom announced that Regnerus would join it at a panel at the United Nations seeking to inject anti-gay politics into discussions of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

In our next post, we’ll look at the role the World Congress of Families has played in promoting anti-gay laws in Russia and throughout the world.

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