A new study from UT sociologist Mark Regnerus is making huge waves today in the worlds of social science and LGBT politics. The study’s title asks “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” The answer, according to Regnerus, is a resounding “very different.”
Regnerus surveyed adult children who reported their mother had at least one same-sex relationship. His surveys found that those children fared worse on 25 of 40 outcomes: they reported worse physical and mental health, more difficulty with romantic relationships, and lower incomes than did children of married heterosexual parents.
But that doesn’t mean that the children did worse because of their parents’ sexual orientation, Regnerus stresses. “This was not a causative study,” he says. Though the study found a link between gay parents and worse outcomes, it didn’t demonstrate that gay parents are less effective than straight parents. Any number of other reasons could account for the differences—maybe children of gay parents suffered from discrimination, for example, or were impacted by financial insecurity.
“The study set out to answer one question and one question only,” says LBJ School professor Cynthia Osborne, who authored a response to the study. “Causality wasn’t part of it. When you have such a highly politicized topic, you need to be very clear about what the research says and doesn’t say. And people will try to make it say whatever they want.”
Osborne says that the study reveals more about family structure than about the parenting ability of gay people. “Based on prior research, when we compare kids raised by their married biological parents to kids who grow up in any other kind of family form—blended families, step-parents, adoptive families, single parents, and so on—the married bio kids are advantaged,” Osborne says. “What hasn’t been tested within any of those family forms is whether parental sexual orientation matters.”
Until now, Osborne says, studies of gay families have found a “protective effect”—that is, gay families weren’t negatively impacted by unconventional family structures, even though straight families were. Regnerus’ study didn’t find evidence of a protective effect.
Critics like Slate‘s Willian Saletan say that the exclusion of stable, planned, long-term same-sex families from the study is misleading. After all, those are the kinds of families who are rallying for the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption.
Osborne says she completely agrees: “It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison—Mark didn’t answer the question that many of us want to see answered,” she explains. “That is, if you have two children growing up in stable married households, and all is equal except parental sexual orientation, is there a difference? That’s the comparison we are legislating today, but it’s a very hard comparison to make.”
One reason that the comparison is so hard to make, Osborne explains, is that 20 to 30 years ago, when the subjects of the study were growing up, there were very few stable, planned, same-sex families in the United States, and none that were married—it was culturally near-impossible. Many of the study’s subjects had experienced divorce, putting them at a disadvantage. Today, that’s rapidly changing—meaning future research may be more revealing.
“The next step is to replicate these findings and ask the question of why these differences exist,” says Osborne. “This was just the first step.”
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons.