In an upcoming article, a pair of sociologists are putting what they call the “final nail in the coffin” of the much-criticized study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus that purported to show that being raised by gay and lesbian parents harms children. The Regnerus study has become a favorite tool of Religious Right activists seeking to show that households led by same-sex couples are bad for children. At the same time, the study has come under scrutiny for the funding it received from anti-gay groups and for its lack of respondents who were actually raised in same-sex parent households.
Indiana University's Brian Powell and the University of Connecticut’s Simon Cheng didn’t just find methodological flaws in Regnerus’ research — they took the data he collected, cleaned it up, and redid the study, coming to a very different conclusion about families led by same-sex couples. Their article will be published in “Social Science Research,” the same journal that published the Regnerus study.
By eliminating suspect data — for example, a 25-year-old respondent who claimed to be 7’8” tall, 88 pounds, married 8 times and with 8 children, and another who reported having been arrested at age 1 — and correcting what they view as Regnerus’ methodological errors, Cheng and Powell found that Regnerus’ conclusions were so “fragile” that his data could just as easily show that children raised by gay and lesbian parents don’t face negative adult outcomes.
“[W]hen equally plausible and, in our view, preferred methodological decisions are used,” they wrote, “a different conclusion emerges: adult children who lived with same-sex parents show comparable outcome profiles to those from other family types, including intact biological families.”
In other words, as University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen put it, “when you clean the data and fix the things that are fixable, the results just don’t hold up.”
Three years ago, Regnerus published an ambitious attempt to quantify how being raised by same-sex parents affects children once they reach adulthood. His findings were dramatic and were quickly seized upon by opponents of LGBT equality around the world: People who had been raised by gay parents, Regnerus said, were more likely to suffer from depression and drug abuse, take part in criminal behavior, develop sexually transmitted infections and were more likely to have been sexually abused as children.
The Regnerus study was promptly scrutinized by fellow social scientists, who pointed out major flaws in his methodology. Many people who he categorized as having been raised by a gay or lesbian parent had spent very little time with that parent or with his or her same-sex partner. Even Regnerus admitted that his data included only two people who said they had been raised for their entire childhoods by a same-sex couple.
Yet, the Regnerus study continues to be cited by opponents of marriage equality and other LGBT rights issues across the globe, and Regnerus himself has even used his research to testify against marriage equality in the courts.
In an amicus brief opposing marriage equality in Louisiana, Regnerus and several other social science professors wrote that despite “the attention and scrutiny” to his study, it “remains in print and subsequent analyses of the (now publicly-accessible) data have revealed no analytic errors.”
“That is no longer true,” Powell told us. “There are major analytic errors in the study.”
Regnerus compared the outcomes of children raised in what he called “intact biological families” (with married biological parents) “lesbian mother” families and “gay father” families, finding differences between “lesbian mother” families and “intact biological families” in 24 of the 40 areas he looked at, and differences between “gay father” families and “intact biological” ones in 19 areas.
But in scrutinizing Regnerus’ data, Cheng and Powell determined that of the 236 respondents whom Regnerus had identified as having been raised by a lesbian mother or gay father, one-tenth had never even lived with the parent in question and an additional one-sixth hadn’t lived with that parent for more than one year. Still more had provided inconsistent or unreliable responses to survey questions, throwing their reliability into doubt. That means, Powell says, that over one-third of the 236 people whom Regnerus classified as having been raised by a lesbian mother or gay father “should absolutely not have ever been considered by Regnerus in this study.”
Reanalyzing Regnerus’ data after eliminating respondents who offered dubious biographical information and recategorizing people who clearly were not raised by gay parents, Cheng and Powell found only three statistically significant differences between the respondents raised by a lesbian mother and those who reported having been raised in “intact biological family” households. Only one of those differences could be considered a negative adult outcome — those respondents were more likely to have had an affair while married or cohabitating. Even that is hardly a smoking gun, says Powell: “If you study 40 different variables or outcomes…just by the law of chance, a few of them should be statistically significant.”
Cheng said that in taking on “one of the most controversial articles published in the history of social science research,” they tried to stay away from the debate about Regnerus’ ideology or the source of his funding. “What we can do is analyze the data,” he said.