Rethinking Same-Sex Parenting (but Not Really)

Mark Regnerus has a piece in Slate in which he details his study of same-sex parenting. The study claims to go against the previous received wisdom that kids of gay parents turn out as well as (or in some cases better than) kids of straight parents. But when Regnerus starts explaining his methodology, the study starts to smell:

Instead of relying on small samples, or the challenges of discerning sexual orientation of household residents using census data, my colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex. 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.

This strikes me as an absurdly broad standard that could potentially include not simply people in same-sex relationships raising kids, but, say, Larry Craig. I don't think it's enough to say you are unconcerned with "the complicated politics of sexual identity" and "same-sex behavior." In fact, I think it's bizarre. "Sexual identity" and "same-sex behavior" are crucial components of what you're studying. Waving them off as "politics" strikes me as weirdly lazy--like saying, "I plan to study light, but I don't want to get into waves and particles."

After pulling together this allegedly representative motley crew, Regnerus proceeds to compare them with "stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families." You can pretty much guess the results:

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. Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.

I'm trying not to draw any conclusions from the fact that he throws in actual problems, like being depressed or getting arrested, with things that may or may not be problems, like smoking a lot of pot or having multiple sex partners. But that aside, the real problem is in the sampling and definitions. 

Will Saletan digs in:

These findings shouldn't surprise us, because this isn't a study of gay couples who decided to have kids. It's a study of people who engaged in same-sex relationships--and often broke up their households--decades ago.

What annoys me about scholarship like this is that it's typical of a kind of contrarianism which purports to upend our PC-understanding of some protected class. Regnerus is big on undermining our "simplistic notions" and "lockstep unanimity," implicitly questioning the intellectual integrity of previous scholarship. Too often, people wave the flag of "difficult truths" and "un-PC" as though merely saying something unpopular is somehow a kind of thinking. And yet when you start digging you find that the insurgents haven't really read what they're critiquing--even as they tell you to do so. Or they're conducting a study which finds Ellen Degeneres and Eddie Long are both potentially raising kids in a same-sex relationship. 

I don't want to speculate but when you are in a predominantly liberal environment, it is easy to fall victim to the kinds of behaviors you're usually critiquing. I'm speaking from personal experience in this instance. But if you're going to swim against the current, your methods have to be tight--tighter than those of people who are running with the current, and certainly not looser. The burden is on the contrarian, and the contrarian who truly revels in the contrarian's role will accept that burden as an obligation to do more, not a license to do less.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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