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Critics challenge findings, funding and methodology of controversial gay-parents study

Initially, the mainstream media treated the “New Family Structures Study” like other academic research. Now, however, questions are being raised.

Mark Regnerus’ research was funded by a right-wing group

Six weeks ago, a University of Texas sociology professor released the results of a study that found that children raised by gay or lesbian parents fared poorly when compared with kids raised by intact families headed by their married, biological, opposite-sex parents.

After surveying 3,000 18- to 39-year-olds, Mark Regnerus found that those raised in LGBT-headed households “are more likely than kids in other family structures to be on public assistance, unemployed or in therapy as adults, among other negative outcomes.”

“The scholarly and popular consensus that there are no notable differences between the children who grew up with a mother or father in a same-sex relationship and those whose (heterosexual) mother and father were and are still married is a fiction,” Regnerus told LiveScience.

For a few days, the mainstream media treated the “New Family Structures Study” much as it would any other serious academic finding, with sober, measured stories laying out the main points.

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Today, however, Regnerus’ relationship to his politically motivated funders and his research methodologies are the subject of complaints being looked at by UT officials.

Among the assertions:

• Groups with ties to the campaigns to outlaw same-sex marriage around the country needed credible evidence to prove that being raised by gays and lesbians is harmful to children.

• Concerned that mainstream funders would not find his work “politically correct,” Regnerus used a “loaded classification system” — in lay terms, he stacked the deck — to deliver that result.

Last week, the topic popped up in the comments on a MinnPost story about a group of former Roman Catholic priests who have signed a statement opposing the effort to amend Minnesota’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

It’s worth delving into the controversy that has mounted — slowly — in the wake of the study’s release. The research almost certainly will be raised again and again here as we get closer to the election and debate about the ballot question heats up.

And because, as it happens, Regnerus’ research was funded by a right-wing group with ties to the main group promoting the constitutional amendment here and similar efforts elsewhere, the National Organization for Marriage.

And one of NOM’s possible strategies, according to internal documents recently disclosed as part of a lawsuit in Maine, is to locate children of LGBT parents and document their unhappiness about their upbringing. (There is no evidence that such efforts actually occurred.)

And, to close the loop, the study’s findings were used in an amicus brief filed in an appeal pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June. The brief argued that the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is constitutional, an assertion a lower federal court rejected.

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Regnerus’ work was funded by more than $750,000 from two conservative groups, including a $55,000 grant to underwrite the hotly criticized process of designing the study. The bulk of the money came from the Witherspoon Institute, whose co-founder, Robert George, is also NOM’s chairman emeritus.

NOM has spent millions of dollars underwriting amendment campaigns throughout the country, including Minnesota’s, but has consistently refused to comply with campaign finance and lobbying laws requiring it to disclose its donors.

The money trail was not the first road critics went down. Soon after the study began generating headlines, social scientists at UT and elsewhere took a look at its sample and methodology.

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, found and parsed documents describing the study’s design submitted both to UT and to Social Science Research, the for-profit, corporately owned journal that published the results.

Writing on the blog Family Inequality, Cohen noted that Regnerus began collecting data last August, prodded survey subjects for responses through Jan. 17 and submitted his paper to the journal Feb. 1, three weeks before his data was to be complete and nearly four weeks before it was due to his university minders.

The paper was “submitted, revised, and accepted within six weeks,” noted Cohen. Not impossible for a peer-review process, but certainly not the norm.

(It’s a lot of detail for a general interest audience, but readers who are interested in the peer review process in this instance may want to follow the very opinionated blogging by The New Civil Rights Movement’s Scott Rose, who is getting interesting answers to admittedly shrill questions.)

Digging into the data sets posted online by the journal and UT, other social scientists quickly noted that only about 250 of the 3,000 survey respondents had an LGBT parent or a parent who had had any kind of same-sex relationship and that only two were raised for more than a short period of time with their parent’s same-sex partner.

“Indeed, the study acknowledges that what it’s really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which parents broke up,” Nathaniel Frank, a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, wrote in a commentary published by the LA Times. ” ‘A failed heterosexual union,’ Regnerus writes in the study, ‘is clearly the modal method’ — the most common characteristic for the group that he lumps in with same-sex-headed households.”

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A sound study design would have compared people raised by intact heterosexual couples with those raised by stable gay and lesbian couples, he and other critics asserted. One, a professor at the University of California Law School, asserted that it was “designed to find bad outcomes” for same-sex families.

Others, including the left-leaning Media Matters, have gone further: “One of the study’s most disturbing findings is that children with gay parents reported significantly higher rates of sexual abuse — including rape — by parents or adult figures as kids than children raised by married, heterosexual parents,” a post on its site notes. “It’s unclear why rates of abuse differ between the two groups, but anti-gay activists have touted the finding as evidence of the long-disproven ‘gays are pedophiles’ myth.

“American Family Association (AFA) spokesman Bryan Fischer cited the study as evidence that allowing gay couples to adopt is ‘a form of sexual abuse,’ ” the entry added. “Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH) referenced the study while arguing ‘you’re more likely basically to get molested in a household led by two lesbians.’ “

Regnerus has consistently said neither he nor his work is political, and suggests that he is simply more willing to wade into controversy than other scholars. His past research has centered on the benefits of early marriage and “hookup culture.”  

As reported by BuzzFeed: “Last year, Regnerus caused a stir by arguing that casual sex had driven the ‘price’ of sexual intercourse down, keeping young women from getting the commitment they wanted. And in 2009, he urged women to consider getting married in their early twenties because ‘marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed.’”

Blogger Rose has filed a complaint with UT officials, who are conducting an inquiry to determine whether a formal investigation is warranted. The institution has also declined to respond to reporters’ requests for data while it is under way.