The Shamelessness of Professor Mark Regnerus

Gay parents with child
Gay parents.


The state of Michigan this week called Mark Regnerus to testify in defense of its ban on same-sex marriage. A sociologist at University of Texas at Austin, Regnerus gained notoriety after publishing a 2012 journal article arguing that children of same-sex parents faced substantial disadvantages compared to those of different-sex parents. The study catapulted him into conservative stardom, making him a credentialed mouthpiece for the claim that LGBTQ equality harms kids and can be blocked not because of anti-gay bias but out of noble concern for children and families.

Regnerus’ article made waves because it appeared to buck the trend of three decades of research showing kids with gay parents fare just as well as others. In his study and accompanying articles—including one Regnerus wrote for Slate—he touted his large, nationally representative sample size, which he said trumped the quality of research of the numerous prior studies finding that the kids are all right.

There’s one problem: Regnerus’ research doesn’t show what he says it does. Not remotely. No research ever has. Yet Regnerus, unchastened by a chorus of professional criticism correctly pointing out the obvious flaws in his work—including a formal reprimand in an audit assigned by the journal that published his piece—continues to make these groundless claims, knowing full well they are baseless. What’s worse, his role in the Michigan case is not just to oppose same-sex marriage but to argue against two-parent adoption, a position that works to keep children from having the stable, two-parent families conservatives have championed for decades. Blocking gay equality has totally trounced any alleged concern for children’s wellbeing.

Much has been written on Regnerus’ discredited study, so I’ll just summarize the single most obvious reason it’s bunk. Regnerus claims to have evaluated outcomes of children “of same-sex parents” and found results are “suboptimal” when compared to children reared by their biological parents. The study claims that, unlike other research that relies on smaller samples, “meaningful statistical inferences and interpretations can be drawn” from his data, and they show that “the optimal childrearing environment” is one where kids are raised by their biological parents.

The claim sounds reasonable enough. But since Regnerus never actually studied “children of same-sex parents,” as he claims, his conclusions are equivalent to calling a 747 the fastest plane without ever testing the Concorde. Kids raised in “planned” same-sex households—as opposed to kids from divorced families where one parent later came out—are still statistically rare, and out of his much-ballyhooed sample size of 3,000, Regnerus was unable to find a valid sample of kids who were actually reared by same-sex parents. Instead, all but two—yes, two—came from households originally led by a different-sex couple, usually the kids’ biological parents, that had suffered a family break-up, the one variable that’s most clearly known to raise risks for children. Since the kids in his data set who come from households with what he calls a “gay” or “lesbian” parent nearly all come from broken homes, his conclusions merely restated what everyone already knew: that instability raises risks for kids. But since Regnerus refers to these subjects as “children of same-sex parents,” which he didn’t actually examine, his study is nothing short of dishonest.

Regnerus’ research made waves for another reason. It had the massive weight of a religious conservative money and marketing machine behind it, and it quickly became clear that the study was only incidentally an academic product. After concerns mounted that the peer-review process might have been rushed, both the publishing journal and independent parties launched investigations. Two hundred social scientists signed a letter citing “serious concerns about the scholarly merit of this paper.” The journal that published the paper commissioned an audit assessing problems with the peer-review process. The audit found “serious flaws and distortions that were not simply ignored, but lauded” in the review process. It found blatant conflicts of interest in that “all three of the respondents to these papers have ties to the Witherspoon Institute,” the conservative religious organization that funded the study with roughly $700,000. Referring to the Regnerus study and a companion piece, the audit concluded that “neither paper should have been published.” In a separate interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Darren E. Sherkat, the designated reviewer, dismissed the entire study as “bullshit.”

Scholarship has to be funded by someone. But disclosures and transparency are supposed to let readers know this. Instead, Regnerus was caught lying about the role of conservative funding in his work. In the study, Regnerus writes that “the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.” Yet in emails obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, Regnerus flatly contradicts this claim, showing Witherspoon was intimately involved with shaping the study. Regnerus wrote that he would like “more feedback” from Witherspoon’s president about the study’s “boundaries,” “optimal timelines,” and “hopes for what emerges from this project,” and he refers to a meeting hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, in which key supporters of Regnerus’ study discussed the need to generate research to help oppose gay marriage. According to live blog reports of today’s testimony, one of Regnerus’ emails asked what the study’s supporters “expect” from his research.

As Regnerus took the stand this week, the chair of UT Austin’s Sociology Department released a statement supporting Regnerus’ right to pursue research but strongly denouncing his views. The statement said his conclusions “do not reflect the views of the Sociology Department of The University of Texas at Austin” nor of the American Sociological Association, “which takes the position that the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus’ work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families.”

You’d think that the nationwide exposure and denunciation of intellectually dishonest, fundamentally flawed, agenda-driven scholarship that’s used to repeatedly smack children and parents in LGBT families would at least quiet the perpetrator for a bit. Instead, Regnerus is out giving talks and testifying in a deepening effort to ward off gay rights. (Recently he told an audience that gay equality would infect the “American imagination” with porn, promiscuity, and anal sex.)

In his Michigan testimony, he makes exactly the same claims that he’s been making all along—the ones that are totally groundless based on his or any other available research: that straight households are the best settings for kids. His testimony includes the claim that, based on his research, “to be stably rooted in your married mother and father’s household is to foster the greatest chance at lifelong flourishing.” No, it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Let’s be clear why: As a social scientist, you cannot claim something has superior outcomes to something else if you haven’t examined the something else. And, ideally, you shouldn’t be able to have your research repeatedly and correctly knocked down and then keep repeating the same conclusions with impunity.

It’s clear that Regnerus, a conservative Catholic who has acknowledged that his research is informed by his faith, conducts his studies in an effort to block gay marriage. It’s equally clear that anti-gay bias shapes his beliefs more than concern for kids and families. But let’s be clear exactly what Regnerus and his conservative comrades are opposing in the Michigan case. The Michigan lawsuit started out as (and remains) a second-parent adoption case, in which a lesbian couple is seeking legal parental ties between both women and the children they’re raising together. Such second-parent adoptions are common ways for the partner of a legal parent to become a legal co-parent to the child, giving that child the same parental protections others enjoy by virtue of biology or marriage. When straights do it, it’s just called “step-parent adoption.” When gays do it, they often get turned away at the door, victims either of explicitly anti-gay laws or laws that privilege married people.

In the Michigan case, the state denied the plaintiffs’ adoption request, interpreting state law to allow adoption only by married couples (same-sex marriage is barred in Michigan) or single individuals. While a single gay person can adopt, a same-sex couple cannot jointly adopt, the option that’s clearly in the best interest of children. After all, the whole purpose of family law is to establish and enforce legal ties that ensure that adults exercise their responsibilities and obligations to children and each other.

Thus Regnerus’ testimony is not just a defense of Michigan’s ban on gay marriage but of its ban on joint adoption. He joins the state in actively opposing giving children two parents—because he thinks that one is of the wrong sex—all in the name of caring for children.

What makes this all the more galling is that the Michigan couple is raising three special-needs children the women are trying to adopt from the foster care system. Research shows that gays and lesbians are more likely to adopt difficult-to-place children from foster care. It’s bad enough to claim, incorrectly, that straight couples make better homes for kids than gay couples. But it’s an outrage to support policy that could let kids languish in group homes rather than live with loving, capable parents. Indeed it’s a shocking goal for conservative Christians claiming to care about vulnerable children to be pursuing.

What’s equally maddening about the focus on how gay parents do is that none of it should matter. Research has long made clear that divorce, single parenthood, adoption, and poverty disadvantage kids. Where is the passionate advocacy for barring adoption, or parenthood by divorcés, single people, or poor people? Why are gay people the only ones subject to a litmus test to secure rights that everyone else gets by birth?

The research that does is exist is, contrary to claims by Regnerus and others, substantial and decisive. More than 100 studies of kids with gay parents failed to find any substantial disadvantages. Many of these had small sample sizes. But many were larger than Regnerus’ samples, and some indeed draw on large, nationally representative samples. Yet in his testimony this week, Regnerus dismissed them all, calling them premature and saying no conclusions could be drawn from such small sample sizes. It’s true that most of the studies did not use probability samples of same-sex households, but neither did Regnerus. And it defies logic to believe that none of these numerous studies would have found problems if they existed. But Regnerus has made it clear that research is not what shapes his views. In today’s testimony he acknowledged that even if research showed more definitively that kids of gay parents fared well, he would not change his position. He’s even written that “a stronger burden of proof” should be applied to same-sex parents than to households where kids are raised by their biological parents.

In the end, the use of parenting research to advocate against gay marriage is a giant leap anyway. Even if research found problems with same-sex parenting, it wouldn’t follow that gay marriage should be banned, since gay people will have kids no matter what. Far better to encourage family stability by letting them marry, the whole point of privileging marital ties. Regnerus and company seem to believe that if same-sex marriage and parenting is banned, LGBTQ families will just go away. It’s a delusion, and one with serious consequences for the kids of those families.

Indeed, as Regnerus and his colleagues parade their pseudoscience before the court and the world, the most harrowing part is fathoming the pain that children with gay parents must feel at hearing a constant barrage of denigrating words against their families. This, above all, is nothing less than shameless.