The Scientific Debate Over Same-Sex Parenting Is Over

Doesn’t everyone bring a stroller on a hike?


In 2013, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to” the consequences of same-sex parenting. It was untrue then. And it is definitely untrue now.

This month, the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics published a new study comparing the children of same-sex parents with the children of opposite-sex parents. Unlike Mark Regnerus’ now-debunked study—which focused on the children of divorced parents—the new research examines intact families, both same-sex and opposite-sex. Its authors found “no differences” in children’s health, no matter the sexual orientation of their parents.

This conclusion is not surprising: To the contrary, it reaffirms the near-absolute consensus among scientists and researchers that parental orientation has no bearing on children’s well-being. Columbia Law School’s What We Know project, which gathers data on same-sex parenting, has identified 73 peer-reviewed articles concluding that gay parents do not disadvantage their children in any way. There is no peer-reviewed, scientifically accepted study finding that gay parents do disadvantage their kids.

Surveying this astonishing breadth of research, Nathaniel Frank—director of the What We Know project and friend of Slateconcludes that “the scientific debate over the politics of gay parenting is over, and equal treatment has won.” That triumph of scientific consensus was a long time in the making.

As Frank explained to me:

Scholarship on LGB parenting began in the 1970s, when primarily lesbian scholars began to fill research gaps to address questions about lesbian parenting. … They began to build a scholarly record aimed at helping gay people—and policymakers—to grasp the best ways to understand and support children living in families with lesbian mothers.

But as the culture wars increasingly focused on gay people, these scholars also found themselves on the defensive about their rights to maintain custody or build new families with children, and so a tremendous amount of energy was devoted to showing that “the kids are all right.” This was enormously important research and has been extremely helpful in convincing the nation that same-sex parenting and marriage was not, contrary to claims by the religious right, a threat to children. But it also meant conducting research in a kind of defensive crouch, all aimed at responding to myths and stereotypes about LGB parents and the alleged dangers they posed to their own children. In some ways, this meant taking away resources from research that would actually help expand our knowledge of gay and lesbian families, since researchers spent so much time just arguing their right to exist.

Now that the science on same-sex parenting is clear, Frank hopes researchers can abandon this “defensive crouch” and focus on “the challenges that LGBT families of different racial, geographic, and class backgrounds may face. In other words, what’s needed is research that no longer reacts to anti-LGBT challenges to equal treatment, but instead serves the health and well-being needs of the underserved LGBT population.”

There’s great wisdom in that goal. But unfortunately, the religious right continues to deny the scientific consensus on same-sex parenting—much as the broader American right resists the science on climate change—and clings to Regnerus’ outrageously flawed study. (One federal judge called Regnerus’ claims “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”) Meanwhile, anti-gay activists continue to engage in the one activity that is proved to harm the children of gay parents: stigmatizing same-sex relationships as unequal. The science gives us great reason for optimism. The political reality suggests that even scores of studies will not persuade religious conservatives to abandon a central tenet of their prejudice.