by Frank Lozera and Doughlas Remy
In June of this year, the journal Social Science Research (henceforth: SSR) published a study by associate professor of sociology Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. The study, titled “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?,” purports to show that the children raised by same-sex couples have poorer outcomes than those raised by mixed-orientation parents. The study has been widely denounced for conflicts of interest in the review process and for its flawed methodology. Among professional organizations calling for its recall are the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychoanalytic Association. The American Sociological is poised to join them. Additionally, over 200 Ph.D.s and M.D.s signed a letter to the SSR complaining about the study.
The study has been widely touted by conservative media in an apparent attempt to garner support for anti-same-sex-marriage initiatives appearing on fall ballots. Appearing as it did in June, just as the 2012 presidential campaigns were ramping up, it has had a huge impact on the national debate about same-sex marriage.
Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, has this to say about the Regnerus study:
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’s methodological problems are indeed so glaring that they should have been red-flagged by qualified peer-reviewers. Instead, an internal SSR audit revealed a shoddy review process and egregious conflicts of interest at every step leading to the study’s publication.
Author Scott Rose of The New Civil Rights Movement has produced a prodigious amount of research on the Regnerus study and is my source for most of what follows. My account is an effort to organize the available information into a list of “red-flags” grouped under two headings: (1) Conflicts of Interest and (2) Methodological Flaws.
Conflicts of Interest
Red Flag #1: Robert P. George commissioned Mark Regnerus to conduct the study, which was to determine whether gay or lesbian parenting had any adverse effects on children. Regnerus received $785,000, which he says came “in part” from the Witherspoon Institute’s Family, Marriage, and Democracy program and from the Bradley Foundation. Regnerus reveals neither the amounts contributed by these organizations nor the source of any additional funding.
Red flag #2: Robert P. George (see Red Flag #1) is a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and a board member of the Bradley Foundation. He is also founder of the National Organization for Marriage (this country’s largest advocacy group opposed to same-sex marriage), board member of the Family Research Council (certified as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and author of the Manhattan Declaration, a theoconservative document advocating civil disobedient resistance to any legislation promoting same-sex marriage.
Red flag #3: W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the Witherspoon program that provided funding for the Regnerus study, is among Mark Regnerus’s long-time personal friends and professional associates.
Red flag #4: Wilcox is also on the editorial board of SSR, which published the Regnerus study.
Red flag #5: SSR’s editorial board decided to publish the Regnerus study on a “rush schedule” (41 days from submission, compared to months for most publications). Why the rush? The most likely explanation is that the 2012 election season was ramping up and various state initiatives regarding same-sex marriage were to be on the ballots. An audit of the study supports this conclusion (see below).
In prioritizing this study, the journal violated its own peer review policy and settled for peer reviewers who possessed no expertise in same-sex parenting or LGBT issues. Three of them were known to be antipathetic toward LGBT causes, including same-sex marriage. SSR’s own auditor (Professor Darren P. Sherket, an SSR editorial board member) admitted that there was “an unseemly rush to publication … that was justified based on the attention that these studies would generate. The published [peer-review] responses were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute.”
Red flag #6: Bradford Wilcox, program director at the Witherspoon Institute, member of the journal’s editorial board, personal friend of Regnerus, and paid Regnerus study consultant, was one of the peer reviewers for the study. This was an egregious violation of the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) Code of Ethics.
Red flag #7: According to Sherket, at least two of the peer reviewers had been paid consultants for the study design.
Red flag #8: Mark Regnerus violated the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics by recruiting Robert Oscar Lopez to write an essay—published on Witherspoon’s online publication Public Discourse-–drawing conclusions from the study. W. Bradford Wilcox is an editorial board member for that publication.
Red flag #9: Regnerus did not control the variables in his test group (children of gay and lesbian parents) and his comparison group (children of heterosexual parents).
The alleged purpose of the study was to answer the question, “Do the children of gay and lesbian parents look comparable to those of their heterosexual counterparts?” Regnerus claims that his study proves a correlation between gay parenting and sub-standard child outcomes.
Regnerus should have eliminated any factors that might cloud the issue. If his comparison group contained only children of continuously married heterosexual parents, his test group should have contained only children of continuously “partnered” same-sex couples.
Instead, Regnerus selected children of continuously married parents for his comparison group, and children mainly from failed mixed-orientation marriages for his test group. This introduction of a third factor into the test group (but not into the comparison group) should have disqualified the study.
Because of this asymmetry, the study can only be said to show that children raised in broken homes do less well that those raised in intact homes. But, of course, this is not Regnerus’s own stated conclusion.
All respondents, who at the time of the study were adults between ages 18 and 39, were asked the following question:
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?
If the answer was “yes,” the respondent was considered to have been the child of a gay or lesbian parent, whether or not the child had been raised by a same-sex couple. The “romantic relationship” of the question could have been nothing more than an infatuation or a one-night stand. A child of Larry Craig could have qualified as a respondent, though Craig was never part of a same-sex couple.
In other words, the actual parenting of that child might have been done by an opposite-sex couple. Nevertheless, Regnerus places the child into the category of “children raised by gay or lesbian parents.”
Tom Bartlett, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, says, “In reality, only two respondents lived with a lesbian couple for their entire childhoods, and most did not live with lesbian or gay parents for long periods, if at all.”
Of the 253 respondents in the test group, 42% reported living with a gay father and his partner for at least four months, but only two percent of those reported doing so for at least three years.
Red flag #10: All the respondents were born between 1971 and 1994, a period when same-sex marriage was illegal in the U.S., there were no domestic partnership laws, and millions of gays and lesbians were trying to cope with closet issues, many of them marrying (straight partners) in a desperate effort to assimilate. Not surprisingly, many of those marriages failed. Their children’s later behavior may have been a result of family upheaval.
Shortly after the study’s publication, over 200 Ph.D.s and M.D.s signed a letter to SSR complaining about it. Their conclusion: “There are substantial concerns about the merits of this paper, and these concerns should have been identified through a thorough and rigorous peer review process.”
After receiving the above letter of complaint, James Wright, SSR’s editor-in-chief, assigned Darren Sherkat (SSR editorial board member) to perform an audit of the publication process. The audit, which has already been made public, will be published in SSR’s November issue.
In the audit, Sherkat found that the Regnerus study was not scientifically valid and that the peer review had failed because of “both ideology and inattention.” He wrote that the peer-review process “failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems.” [emphasis mine] He added that SSR’s owners were more interested in the “impact factor” than in publishing reliable research: “…rigorous independent evaluation [of the Regnerus study] would have made Social Science Research a less popular but better journal.”
In a subsequent e-mail to Scott Rose, Sherkat wrote: “How did this study get through peer review? The peers are right-wing Christianists!”
Elsewhere, Sherkat described the study as “bullshit.”
“There should be reflection about a conservative scholar garnering a very large grant from exceptionally conservative foundations,” Sherkat writes in the audit, “to make incendiary arguments about the worthiness of LGBT parents—and putting this out in time to politicize it before the 2012 United States presidential election.”
Regnerus’s study doesn’t document the failure of same-sex parenting. Instead, it shows the harmful effects of closeting and the devastations wrought upon children by social opprobrium. The overwhelming majority of the children in the test group were raised by mixed-orientation parents, not same-orientation ones.
A society that uses stigmatization and discrimination to force its same-sex-oriented young people into marriages with opposite-sex-oriented individuals should not be surprised when those marriage fall apart, damaging children in the process. If we are to learn anything from Regnerus’s study, it is that children benefit from being raised in stable households. Not only does same-sex marriage offer such stability; it also helps to stabilize “straight” marriages by siphoning off closeted gays and lesbians who might otherwise stay in the straight-marriage pool.
What could be more sensible?