The Latest Gay Parenting Study Is a Dishonest, Gratuitous Assault on LGBTQ Families

Pay no attention to spurious studies, family.


The religious right is at it again. Despite the Supreme Court having settled the question of whether same-sex couples can marry and, by extension, raise families, we continue to see research studies popping up that claim to find correlations between having same-sex parents and suffering from a variety of ailments including depression, anxiety, suicidality, problems with intimacy, and even risk of parental abuse.

The latest is from Catholic University scholar Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest who already has under his belt several studies that make related claims. Sullins’ most recent study was published in an Egyptian-based open access journal that requires authors to pay for publication, creating a conflict of interest since publishers who ought to perform quality control have a financial incentive to accept papers, regardless of quality. The journal’s publisher has been criticized for a lax peer-review process that isn’t even overseen by a real editor.

It’s not hard to see why someone like Sullins would turn to a subpar journal to get his paper accepted. For years now, religious and social conservatives have made claims, citing research, that children are harmed by having gay, lesbian, or bisexual parents. The familiar network of anti-LGBTQ behemoths, including the Family Research Council, American Family Association, and several other groups, then spread those claims across the internet, breathlessly asserting they had proof that children need a mom and a dad to thrive and that it’s both immoral and bad public policy to allow gay people to parent—or marry.

Until 2012, these advocates had to rely on an obvious bait-and-switch. They pointed to research that was actually about households headed by single, separated, or divorced parents, which has indeed shown higher risks to children because of the disruptions and struggles associated with those family configurations. Since most gay or lesbian parents had become parents through a prior opposite-sex relationship, these claims did not actually tell us anything about the impact of LGB parenting, only about the impact of family disruption—which was already widely known.

But in 2012, conservative think tanks made a move to render the bait-and-switch less obvious. They began to fund studies that included children whose parents were, in fact, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Yet none of the studies controlled for family disruption, so they ended up telling us no more about the risks of having a lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent than the prior research did.

That didn’t stop the social conservative empire from cynically broadcasting the study results as though they told us something new and definitive about the impact of gay parenting on kids and society instead of what they do tell us, which is literally nothing of relevance to LGB parenting.

Take Sullins’ latest study. In it, he claims “adults raised by same-sex parents were at over twice the risk of depression” developing later in life as those raised by different-sex couples. He calls it the “first study to examine children raised by same-sex parents into early adulthood” and claims it “contribute[s] new information for understanding of the effects of same-sex parenting through the life-course transition into early adulthood.”

Except, as with the other studies making similar claims, it does no such thing. Sullins found 20 cases of what he calls “adolescents with same-sex parents.” Yet we know nothing about how long these subjects lived with a same-sex couple, much less whether they were “raised” by one. In fact, we know from other research (and common sense, mixed with a dose of history) that the majority of individuals with a gay parent were born into families that were not headed by same-sex parents, but by either single parents or a different-sex couple. Sullins thus has no grounds on which to define his subjects as having been “raised” by “same-sex parents,” which would be essential for his entire anti-LGBTQ claim to make any sense.

Indeed, one wonders why this small group of anti-LGBTQ articles published since 2012 is even considered research. Each author is a highly religious man who has made it abundantly clear that his work is driven by his religious faith. Here, I am supposed to say that there is nothing incompatible about being religious and being an effective scholar. That is no doubt true for some folks; but these religious zealots make it harder to say that every time they roll out one of their new studies. Because their transparent efforts to commandeer an entire social science field to advance a religious agenda makes their scientific claims—and them—into laughing stocks. One thing we can thank God for is the federal court system, which forced them to admit that leaps of faith, not good science, were driving their conclusions. When this group of academic theocrats tried to take their case to federal court by serving as expert witnesses in cases opposing same-sex marriage and parenting, one acknowledged that religious faith influenced his results and another said he believed unrepentant gays would literally go to hell.

Despite such admissions, their legions of foot soldiers have taken to the airwaves once again to profess their own blind faith in the power of fake science. “The Data on Children in Same-Sex Households Get More Depressing,” blares one dishonest headline. This one is written by Mark Regnerus, author of the original 2012 dishonest study that started the ball rolling and was uniformly condemned by serious scholars—including his own department head and a chorus of 200 of his academic colleagues.

“Half of adults raised in same-sex households [are] depressed,” says another, which is as honest as if you calculated mortality rates by surveying the cancer ward. “Another Study Finds Same-Sex Parenting Isn’t Best For Kids,” claims a third in the Federalist. Another study? Let’s remember that the four scholarly studies making this claim all committed the same fatal error—if something so clearly purposeful can be called that—which was to conflate households headed by gay parents with households headed by unmarried parents or characterized by disruption, a cohort known to raise children’s risks. By contrast, the What We Know Project, which I run at Columbia Law School, has collected 74 peer-reviewed studies concluding that having a lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent causes no harm.

It is now well-known that the religious right gathered at well-heeled conservative think tanks to plot an academic-looking strategy to influence the marriage equality debate with claims that gay parenting harms kids. That debate has now been settled by the Supreme Court. There was something reprehensible about spending millions of dollars to try to hijack a scholarly discourse in an effort to advance an extremist religious ideology, especially by claiming to help kids while actually supporting policies that would deny them legal ties to their parents. Now that they have lost the battle, the fact that these social conservatives continue to gratuitously berate LGBTQ families is simply unconscionable.