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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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Comments (39)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/20/2012 - 09:23 am.

    Just to break it down for people

    If experimenting explicitly on same sex households vs. hetero households, this clown had a control group of 2,998 and an experimental group of 2. Wow.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2012 - 09:27 am.

    Couple of points.

    “A sound study design would have compared people raised by intact heterosexual couples with those raised by stable gay and lesbian couples”

    I’ve seen this critique. Turns out kids raised by “stable gay and lesbian couples” are a sort of statistical unobtainum. Either because not many gays have children in their homes, or because “stability” in such homes doesn’t last long enough in enough of them to provide a valid comparison with normal, heterosexually headed households.

    On another aspect, I wonder if anyone else notices that to give weight to the guilt by association logical fallacy being presented by gays & their leftist allies, Beth cites leftist sources solely.

    Regnerus is to be commended as much for the courage to publish it as for the content of his research. It is only through such leadership that others will find the courage to speak the truth.

    • Submitted by Susan McNerney on 07/20/2012 - 11:09 am.

      Uhm, wrong

      there are many stable gay and lesbian couples out there. I know several. As for children, there are thousands of gay couples who have adopted or used other means to have children. You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to know that. In fact, gay adoption in California substantially reduced the number of kids languishing in foster care there.

      I feel sorry for people who have such small social circles they actually don’t know these things. It’s got to be increasingly difficult to navigate the modern world from a self-imposed virtual monastery.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/20/2012 - 12:29 pm.

      Specious claim

      “Turns out kids raised by stable gay and lesbian couples are a sort of statistical unobtainum.”

      Prove it.

      • Submitted by James Blum on 07/20/2012 - 04:20 pm.

        He can’t prove it

        Don’t hold your breath waiting for Mr. Swift to provide “evidence.” Mr. Swift is well-known by frequent visitors to MinnPost to make wholly unsubstantiated, wild claims (just like his patron saint, Rep. Bachmann). Not only are there hundreds of thousands of kids raised by stable gay and lesbian couples (I personally can name several dozen kids just from my daughters’ roster of friends that are the product of long-term, stable gay and/or lesbian households), but we are far enough along into creating family equality that we can find thousands of adult children of stable same-sex households. The unicorn here isn’t happy children from stable same-sex couples, it is honest conservatives.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/22/2012 - 05:31 pm.

          Oh, I know

          But letting the “truthiness claims” gain traction through repetition without challenge has a lot to do with how we got into this mess in the first place. That is why whenever I see someone post a “statement of fact” without any documentation supporting it, I call them out on it.

          It’s kind of funny, because in a separate thread, someone thought he’d be “cute” by “calling me out” on a statement I’d made – fully failing to realize, apparently, that I’d made a statement of my own opinion rather than a provable fact.

          It’s another part of why we’re in the mess that we’re in that so many people these days seem to be entirely incapable of distinguishing between the two.

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/20/2012 - 04:01 pm.

      Shorty Swiftee

      If you cannot actually find subjects for the thing you are studying, just grab some vaguely tangential subjects and call it good.

    • Submitted by Aim MN on 07/22/2012 - 02:08 pm.


      I could really care nothing about one study or the next at this point. Having parents, whether they are gay or heterosexual couples is a plus. Now, most of us know people who are living in a loving relationship with same genders. Doing wonderful, and are good parents or could be.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2012 - 03:56 pm.

        One opinion as valid as another.

        Thank you for sharing your opinion AIM, but emerging research doesn’t bear it out.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/20/2012 - 09:35 am.

    An excellent post

    on a very shoddy piece of research.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/20/2012 - 10:38 am.

    Follow the money…

    …still seems to me a worthwhile investigative technique.

    “…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.”

    Indeed, and since that doesn’t appear to have been the methodology used in this instance, the results are equivalent to manure. One particularly striking example: “…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.”

    ’Twould appear that the study reaches rather broad conclusions based on a sample of… two.

    I confess I don’t know any gay/lesbian parents personally, but nothing in the study’s conclusions or methodology seems to support the Bachmann-like shrieking emanating from the right. Perhaps a genuine and methodologically-sound study would do so, and thus support that Bachmann-like shrieking, but this is not that study.

    It doesn’t pass the smell test, and reeks instead of right wing propaganda.

  5. Submitted by Steven Mayer on 07/20/2012 - 11:27 am.

    Sexuality isn’t the issue

    Aren’t our prisons and unemployment lines filled with people raised by heterosexual parents? Obviously being heterosexual or married isn’t enough to keep ones’ kids out of jail and employed.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2012 - 03:58 pm.

      Interesting point Steve

      “Aren’t our prisons and unemployment lines filled with people raised by heterosexual parents? ”

      But that would also be true of 98% of the people on this planet.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/20/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    A quick look

    at the study shows that he used simple T-tests without any correction for multiple comparisons.
    In other words, data mining and cherry picking the data.
    Unless I’ve missed something (I don’t have the stomach to read the whole article carefully), this study would not be published by any reputable journal.

  7. Submitted by Ross Williams on 07/20/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    Results didn’t support Funders

    If you look at the actual results, they seem to support the idea that stable relationships are good for kids, regardless of the parents sexual preference. That conclusion would, of course, contradict one of the major arguments being made against letting gays get married.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2012 - 02:44 pm.

    A headline you’ll never see on MinnPost

    “Scholars Defend Regenerus Study”

    An acknowledgement you’ll never read on MinnPost:

    “.. another study[7] published this month in the [peer reviewed ~ed] Journal of Marriage and Family comes to conclusions that parallel those of Regnerus’s study.”

    “This study finds that “children in same-sex parent families scored lower than their peers in married, 2-biological parent households” on two academic outcomes, and that these baseline differences can probably be attributed in part to higher levels of family instability in same-sex families, compared to intact, biological married families. This study was also based on a large, nationally representative, and random survey of school-age children; moreover, the same-sex parents in this study lived together.”

    “The parallels between the findings in this study and Regnerus’s study call into question the New Republic’s claim that the Regnerus study “gets everything wrong.”

    This study may not have been the most robust, but it has opened the door for more research and for that alone Regnerus is owed a huge debt of gratitude.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/20/2012 - 03:05 pm.

      Good luck on this one, Mr. Swift

      As Walter Olson, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute put it:

      “It was clear from early on that the Regnerus study didn’t prove what its backers claimed it did. At this point — considering the way it fails to handle the issues of proper identification of who’s gay, divorce, adoption, poverty, discrimination, and disincentives to stable partnership — it’s bristling with more red flags than a rally in central Pyongyang.”

      The Regnerus Gay-Parenting Study: More Red Flags

      I note that the Cato Institute is hardly a bastion of liberalism. Anyone who is intellectually honest can spot the many flaws in the work of Regnerus as prior commenters have already done.

      Your horse is dead. I will not flog it.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2012 - 03:41 pm.

        Please feel free

        to follow the links I’ve provided, “Prof”. As an “academic” you’ll appreciate the differences between thoughtful, scholarly consideration and mere bloviation.

        Heck, take my horse; he knows the way!

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/20/2012 - 04:26 pm.

      You need to read your own links

      Even the defenders of Regnerus you have cited qualify their support and recognize the flaws in his methodology and conclusions. This is from your second link:

      “Indeed, it is possible to interpret Regnerus’s findings as evidence for the need for legalized gay marriage, in order to support the social stability of such relationships.”

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2012 - 04:01 pm.

        Admitting to flaws is just good science Dan

        Regenerus himself admits to flaws. He also points out flaws in studies conducted by pro-homosexual groups. That does not invalidate the science, it provides opportunities for more.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/23/2012 - 07:03 am.

          So is questioning the validity of the claims being made . . ..

          once the flaws are identified.

          The case is unpersuasive at this point in time. For a more persuasive case to be made, it appears that another study would have to actually use a statistically significant (or at least equivalent) sample set representing BOTH populations being compared and studied.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/23/2012 - 10:48 am.

            Persuit of the truth is always a good thing, Pat.

            More research is needed and as I’ve said (repeatedly) Regenerus’ biggest contribution may have been to simply have the courage to stand up against the well entrenched, pro-homosexual lobby that exists in academia, the media and pop culture.

            Once the ice is broken, more research will follow.

            Heck, who knows. Maybe the APA will find the stones to re-examine the decision (made under similarly unconscionable pressure) that has been the cause of so much of the pre-fabbed “science” that supports the notion that sand is food.

            As they say, Pat; “The Truth Will Out”

            • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/23/2012 - 05:02 pm.

              I’m absolutely convinced “The Truth Will Out”

              I’m just not convinced it’s going to end up being what you apparently think it’s going to end up being.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2012 - 02:53 pm.

    For those that may be interested…

    … in actually giving the research a thoughtful consideration, I’d like to share this excellent critique:

    Are Gay Parents Worse Parents?

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/20/2012 - 10:56 pm.

      The paper has already been debunked, Mr. Swift

      “giving the research thoughtful consideration”

      This has been done. By a large group of people (200+ professionals) who wrote to the journal in which the Regnery paper was published:

      Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research

      “We are very concerned about the academic integrity of the peer review process for this paper as well as its intellectual merit. We question the decision of Social Science Research to publish the paper, and particularly, to publish it without an extensive, rigorous peer review process and commentary from scholars with explicit expertise on LGBT family research. The methodologies used in this paper and the interpretation of the findings are inappropriate.”

      I commend your attention to the full text of this letter at the link below as well as the signatories which include well recognized national and international scholars in the areas of sociology and family studies.

      Bombshell Letter: 200+ PhDs And MDs Question Scholarly Merit Of Regnerus Study

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2012 - 03:55 pm.

        Thanks for the link

        Being someone who appreciates information from many sources, I was pleased to follow your link, “Prof. Being a careful reader, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people quoted in the article had a connection to gay rights activism.

        They don’t provide any further scientific insights, but are certainly as welcome to their opinios as any one else.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2012 - 03:10 pm.

    More information of interest to the thoughful reader…

    “In a response that appears in the same issue of the journal Social Science Research, demographer Cynthia Osborne says that “the Regnerus study is more scientifically rigorous than most of the other studies in this area.”

    “Penn State sociologist Paul Amato writes that the NFSS “is probably the best that we can hope for, at least in the near future.”

    “Another Penn State sociologist, David Eggebeen, concludes that Regnerus’s study and Loren Marks’s analysis of prior studies, published in the same journal, “offer reasonable arguments for…more caution when drawing strong conclusions based on the available science.”

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/20/2012 - 10:44 pm.

      Osborn and Amato

      “We further question the selection of commenters for the Regnerus paper. While Cynthia Osborne and Paul Amato are certainly well-respected scholars, they are also both active participants in the Regnerus study. According to her curriculum vitae, Dr. Osborne is a Co-Principal Investigator of the New Family Structure Survey. Dr. Amato served as a paid consultant on the advisory group convened to provide insights into study design and methods. Perhaps more importantly, neither Osborne nor Amato have ever published work that considers LGBT family or parenting issues.”

      Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research
      Signed by 200+ Phds and MDs

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2012 - 04:08 pm.

        That letter would have had more credibility

        if the signors would have had the honesty to admit their own connections to pro-homosexual groups.

        It’s no surprise they are upset after having spent so much time laying out their somkescreen only to have it blown away.

  11. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 07/20/2012 - 04:08 pm.

    But as to the marriage question…

    For most real-life kids living in a family headed by two same-sex adults, the question isn’t whether they would have been better off if they instead lived with two opposite-sex adults — even if the study told us that. The real question is whether the kids are better off if the same-sex adults they live with are allowed to marry or are forced to remain an unmarried couple. I would have thought that was an easy question. I recently wrote a letter to the editor on this topic:

  12. Submitted by Rich Crose on 07/23/2012 - 09:06 am.

    Straight out of PR Playbook

    Don’t like the findings of a health study that links cigarettes to cancer?
    1) commission your own study that supports your cause. It doesn’t matter if it is based on specious facts, you have set the machine in motion.
    2) Hire a PR firm to form and fund stealth campaign that creates a bastion of community groups to support it. (1-800 number goes to the PR firm).
    3) Hire another PR firm to run a stealth campaign of fear of loss of freedom to ignite the community (You won’t be able to smoke in a bar! Your favorite bar will go broke!)
    4) Be prepared for when the research gets refuted by paying other scientists a lot of money to question the credentials of the scientists. Keep your attackers on retainer with a lot of money.
    5) Donate a lot of money to friendly politicians who write friendly legislation that they introduce into Congress even though you know it won’t pass. By having politicians endorse your view, it gives it legitimacy
    6) Hire a third PR agency to run a positive campaign (TV Ads) with your lovely face on it showing you are a wonderful group trying to save the world. Everyone will love you.
    7) Recruit other industries to join your cause so you don’t have to fund it all.
    8) Don’t give up, keep all of the above in motion for as long as it takes –profit is at stake here.
    9) Never underestimate the stupidity of the public.

    It worked for the Tobacco Industry (No FDA regulation), the Insurance industry (ACA = Insurance bonanza), the mining industry (Govt regulations = bad), the oil industry (Climate change is phoney), the finance industry (The Tea Party) and on and on and on.

    If it works for the corporate plutocracy it can work for a theocracy.

  13. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/27/2012 - 09:00 am.

    Latest developments in the Regnerus saga..

    I’d encourage those with an interest in this topic to have a look at the latest developments which are reported today in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Controversial Gay-Parenting Study Is Severely Flawed, Journal’s Audit Finds

    from that article:

    At the suggestion of another scholar, Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, assigned a member of the journal’s editorial board—Darren E. Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale—to examine how the paper was handled.

    Sherkat was given access to all the reviews and correspondence connected with the paper, and was told the identities of the reviewers. According to Sherkat, Regnerus’s paper should never have been published. His assessment of it, in an interview, was concise: “It’s bullshit,” he said.

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