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Flawed Sociology on Gay Parenting

Many people think that sociologist are all like me, a bit to the left of Karl Marx. But in fact sociology has always had some deeply conservative roots. Emile Durkheim, one of the field’s founders, was wedded to a highly gendered order, something that would enable “conjugal solidarity” (unlike the feminists of his time who saw companionate marriage as a much better idea). In the 20th century, Talcott Parsons dominated U.S. sociology in a way that limited critique to the periphery and described 1950s America and the growth of Cold War America as “functional” even as he institutionalized his daughter, Anne, for believing such logic to be illogical.

I suppose every generation of sociology is doomed to have its Durkheim, and Mark Regnerus is quickly becoming ours. Regnerus is a propagandist for heterosexual marriage who disguises his ideological biases behind a smoke screen of social science. He has argued that marriage will make you wealthier (not that wealthier people get married), that being married is more ecological than being single (because apparently single people all live alone), and that women should get married younger because their marriage capital goes down with decreasing fertility.

Now he’s authored a study showing that gay families are not as good for children as “traditional” ones. The study in Social Science Research, part of a larger New Family Structures Study, compares

 how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types. The results reveal numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents.

Okay those of you who have had Survey Design 101, what is wrong with that comparison? That’s right–he’s comparing oranges to apple slices. One is “still married biological parents” and one is “had a relationship.” One is an ongoing family structure; the other might have been a two-week fling.  As Thalia Zepatos, director of public engagement at the marriage equality group Freedom to Marry, pointed out:

It would be like comparing two parent Catholic families and divorced Mormon parents and coming out with a conclusion that Catholics are better parents than Mormons.

Not only that, but the study is based on surveys filled out between 1971 and 1994. Although the survey sample was large and therefore considered reliable in the world of statistics, there is another obvious problem with such data. Can you think of what it is? Oh yeah, the gay marriage movement and long-term familial arrangements rooted in homosexual partnerships hadn’t really begun. Instead, Regnerus is lumping people who were born within heterosexual relationships and whose parents later went on to have homosexual ones with children raised in gay families.

Writing at Slate, Regnerus admits that his research has problems, for instance labeling any woman who has ever had a relationship with a woman as “lesbian” even though she had those children with a man and could just as easily have been “heterosexual.”

 I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.

Um, that seems a bit like cooking the data to me. Regnerus wants to show that lesbian parents are worse than straight parents so he molds the data accordingly and ignores the “complicated politics.”

The crux of Regnerus’s ideology goes like this: Heterosexual marriage is the best and only way to raise children and therefore no other family formations deserve resources.

The household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still—according to the data, at least—the safest place for a kid.

The basic results call into question simplistic notions of “no differences,” at least with the generation that is out of the house. On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents. … Why such dramatic differences? I can only speculate, since the data are not poised to pinpoint causes. One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it.

Ultimately, Regnerus’s work will receive a lot of attention from pro-gay-marriage groups and anti-gay-marriage groups as “proof” that we need the state to coerce families into certain sorts of arrangements. But the truth is, Regnerus’s work should not be used for either cause, and not just because it is flawed social science. Instead, we need to support all families, whether they are “stable” or not, whether they are straight or not, whether they’re made up of biological parents and their offspring or not.

It’s not just that Regnerus’s conclusions are ideological; it’s that the questions are. It is not the role of the state to coerce us into certain family formations. But it should be the role of the state to level the playing field, as much as possible, for all children by making sure they all have access to quality public education, health insurance, basic nutrition, and housing. Period. Anything beyond that is to confuse what another sociologist, Max Weber, called “ideal forms” with what is actually happening.

For Regnerus, the heterosexual married couple is an ideal form. For Americans, it is a minority family formation. And to advocate for policies that do not recognize this very obvious social fact is just bad sociology.

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