Human Nature

Back in the Gay

Does a new study indict gay parenthood or make a case for gay marriage?

A lesbian mother with her daughter, 2004

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images

Read Mark Regnerus’ Slate essay on the new gay-parents study.

Is same-sex marriage a good idea? Or is an intact biological family the best environment for raising a child? The answer may turn out to be yes and yes.

That’s the curious implication of a study reported yesterday in Social Science Research and outlined in Slate today by its principal investigator, sociologist Mark Regnerus. The study, which found inferior economic, educational, social, and psychological outcomes among children of gay parents, comes across as evidence that homosexuals are unfit to raise kids. But the study doesn’t document the failure of same-sex marriage. It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage.

The project, known as the New Family Structures Study, was sponsored, to the tune of nearly $800,000, by two socially conservative funders: the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. In his journal article, Regnerus says it “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults—on multiple counts and across a variety of domains—when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.” In Slate, he notes, “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.”

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.

To understand the study, you have to read the questionnaire that defined the sample. It began by asking each respondent, as the child of this or that kind of family arrangement, his age. If the respondent was younger than 18 or older than 39, the survey was terminated. This means the entire sample was born between 1971 and 1994, when same-sex marriage was illegal throughout the United States, and millions of homosexuals were trying to pass or function as straight spouses.

The survey went on to ask: “From when you were born until age 18 … did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?” If the respondent said yes, he was put in the “gay father” (GF) or “lesbian mother” (LM) category, regardless of subsequent answers. But if he said no, a later question about the relationship between “your biological parents” was used to classify him as the product of an “intact biological family” (IBF) or of an “adopted,” “divorced,” “stepfamily,” or “single-parent” household. In other words, broken families were excluded from the IBF category but included in the GF and LM categories.

This loaded classification system produced predictable results. In his journal article, Regnerus says respondents who were labeled GF or LM originated most commonly from a “failed heterosexual union.” As evidence, he observes that “just under half of such respondents reported that their biological parents were once married.” Most respondents classified as LM “reported that their biological mother exited the respondent’s household at some point during their youth.” Regnerus calculates that only one-sixth to one-quarter of kids in the LM sample—and less than 1 percent of kids in the GF sample—were planned and raised by an already-established gay parent or couple. In Slate, he writes that GF kids “seldom reported living with their father for very long, and never with his partner for more than three years.” Similarly, “less than 2 percent” of LM kids “reported living with their mother and her partner for all 18 years of their childhood.”

In short, these people aren’t the products of same-sex households. They’re the products of broken homes. And the closer you look, the weirder the sample gets. Of the 73 respondents Regnerus classified as GF, 12—one of every six—“reported both a mother and a father having a same-sex relationship.” Were these mom-and-dad couples bisexual swingers? Were they closet cases who covered for each other? If their kids, 20 to 40 years later, are struggling, does that reflect poorly on gay parents? Or does it reflect poorly on the era of fake heterosexual marriages?

What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people. But that finding isn’t meaningless. It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights. We need to study Regnerus’ sample and fix the mistakes we made 20 or 40 years ago. No more sham heterosexual marriages. No more post-parenthood self-discoveries. No more deceptions. No more affairs. And no more polarization between homosexuality and marriage. Gay parents owe their kids the same stability as straight parents. That means less talk about marriage as a right, and more about marriage as an expectation.

The study does raise a fundamental challenge for same-sex couples. Since they can’t produce children from their combined gametes, they suffer, in Regnerus’ words, “a diminished context of kin altruism.” He points out that in studies of adoption, stepfamilies, and cohabitation, this kinship deficit has “typically proven to be a risk setting, on average, for raising children when compared with married, biological parenting.” Homosexuals who want to have kids could emulate the biological model by using eggs or sperm from a sibling of the non-biological parent, though the effects of this practice on family dynamics are unknown.

But the infertility of same-sex couples also confers an advantage. As Regnerus acknowledges, “Today’s children of gay men and lesbian women are more apt to be ‘planned’ (that is, by using adoption, IVF, or surrogacy) than as little as 15–20 years ago, when such children were more typically the products of heterosexual unions.” In fact, “Given that unintended pregnancy is impossible among gay men and a rarity among lesbian couples, it stands to reason that gay and lesbian parents today are far more selective about parenting than the heterosexual population, among whom unintended pregnancies remain very common, around 50%.” And the more planned your child is, the more likely it is that she’ll turn out well. Based on previous research, Regnerus predicts that outcomes among children of stable, planned same-sex families are “quite likely distinctive” from outcomes among children of failed heterosexual unions.

The study’s main takeaway, according to Regnerus, is that kids of gay parents have turned out differently from kids of straight parents, and not in a good way. I’m sure that conclusion will please the study’s conservative sponsors. But the methodology and findings, coupled with previous research, point to deeper differences that transcend orientation. Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home. If that’s good advice for straights, it’s good advice for gays, too.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: