What Does Mark Regnerus Want?

SLATE | Jul. 10, 2014

You might think that a researcher who was repudiated by his own department, caught lying about the role of funding in his research, and generally made the laughing stock of serious scholars in his field would lay low for a while. If this researcher had any desire to rehabilitate his career, you might assume, he would avoid repeating the same line of ungrounded, politicized, and harmful claims about LGBTQ families that badly marred his career in the first place.

But if you were speaking of Mark Regnerus, you’d be wrong. A young, conservative Catholic professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Regnerus gained renown in recent years for getting through peer review a fundamentally flawed study that claimed children of same-sex parents fared poorly, when the study didn’t even examine, well, children of same-sex parents. Numerous investigators from within and outside academia showed definitively that the study—from conception to design to funding to execution and roll-out—was a conservative PR campaign meant to influence court cases to block same-sex marriage by denigrating LGBTQ families with false claims about child outcomes. And all of this with no regard for the stigmatizing impact on those families, particularly children, in whose names conservatives have famously waged their anti-modernist campaigns.

In the wake of yet another study showing the kids are all right, Regnerus has again taken up his pen, this time trying to skewer the latest data by hurling at them the same criticisms that discredited his own study. Yet the facts are simple, and they’re not remotely on his side. The numerous flaws of Regnerus’ study have been amply detailed. But the most glaring one—and the one that reveals the rank hypocrisy of his current attacks on others’ research—is this: Regnerus touted his own study, the New Family Structures Study, which claimed to find numerous disadvantages for kids of gay or lesbian parents, as using the “gold standard for research,” a large, nationally representative sample of subjects: “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.”

But to draw generalizable conclusions about a class of people, such as kids with same-sex parents, your much ballyhooed research pool must consist of, well, the people you’re claiming to study, and the pool must not have a consistent additional variable known to skew the results. Instead, Regnerus relied almost exclusively on children of divorced parents, where one parent had come out as gay—that is, on a subject pool known to raise the risk for children of encountering difficulty, not on kids with gay parents per se. Indeed, of the 15,000 people Regnerus screened, only 248 even had one parent who had had a same-sex relationship, and of those, only two were actually raised for any significant period of time by a stable same-sex couple. Regnerus pulled a classic bait and switch: Look at this huge sample we used for our research showing same-sex parenting harms kids. (Fine print: actually, only two people out of the 15,000 were children of same-sex parents.)

Regnerus therefore gives new meaning to chutzpah in his recent complaint that we “cannot learn” anything of value from the new study by Australian researcher Simon Crouch, “Parent-Reported Measures of Child Health and Wellbeing in Same-Sex Parent Families: A Cross-Sectional Survey.” Regnerus’ conclusion: “To compare the results from such an unusual sample with that of a population-based sample of everyone else is just suspect science.”

Um, Regnerus’ sample size was two. Two children with same-sex parents. Which gives new meaning to the phrase, “unusual sample size.” It’s crucial here to point out a key distinction between having a gay parent and being raised by a same-sex couple. Regnerus investigated 248 children with a gay parent (or to be precise, a parent who had at least one same-sex relationship, which does not, in fact, make them gay or lesbian). That sampling pool is, indeed, drawn from a larger, nationally representative panel, the boasted-about 15,000 people he screened. But the vast majority of the 248 came from homes of parental dissolution, which we know raises risks for kids; only two were raised by a stable same-sex couple. And yet Regnerus makes a much stronger claim than other researchers: that “same-sex parenting” (not just having a gay parent) is harmful to kids, even if they’re raised in a stable household by two members of the same sex. His research doesn’t show this at all, and yet he still says it, a cardinal sin of social science research.

By contrast, the Crouch study that Regnerus condemns looked at 500 children with a gay parent, more than twice as many as Regnerus found. And even though they were not all in stable, two-parent homes, the children fared better on several measures. It’s true that the Crouch study uses a “convenience” sample rather than a random sample, which is the stronger method. But Crouch doesn’t claim otherwise, while Regnerus, who we know designed the study as part of an anti-gay campaign funded by conservative think tanks, makes highly dishonest claims that are totally unsupported by his research—and then throws stones against more modest and more honest researchers whose conclusions threaten his campaign against gay families.

In any event, for a project I’m designing at Columbia Law School, my research team has collected more than 75 studies—some based on convenience sampling and some on nationally representative pools—that all show children with gay or lesbian parents do as well as others. The Crouch study adds one more. And yet the only studies claiming to show otherwise are a small handful of papers pushed by Regnerus and his conservative allies, all of which share the same fundamental flaws in conflating children of gay parents with children from homes that have gone through disruptive break-ups.

In defeat, Regnerus has turned to a flimsy new tactic: Inverting his conflation of gay homes with broken homes, he now distinguishes between “average” homes and “planned” homes. He notes that in his research, “stability was largely absent” from the homes with a gay parent. The “average” home with a gay parent in it, he then concludes, is a “notably more challenging” environment than one with a married mother and father. In other words, Regnerus is saying: It’s true that I’m using gay homes and broken homes interchangeably, but since there are more broken gay homes than planned gay homes (i.e., gay couples who commit to one another and then plan to have a child), I can keep saying that gay parenting harms kids.

Oddly, Regnerus dismisses “planned” same-sex parenting as unlikely to be “the new normal” and relies on this assumption as a defense of his conflation of broken and gay homes in arguing against same-sex parenting and marriage. But this is wholly illogical in the current climate. These days, there is no policy question up for debate about what he calls “average” gay families, those where one parent has come out and left his or her spouse. There used to be: when judges faced custody battles over whether a gay parent was too immoral or untrustworthy to deserve child custody. Thankfully, those days are mostly (but not entirely) in the past. Does Regnerus want to bring them back? Does he perhaps want to ban people from being gay if they have kids, from bearing a child if they’re lesbian, from coming out if they’re a parent, or from getting divorced if they’re gay?

The bottom line is there is no feasible way to regulate this sort of family situation—though the best way to reduce the number of broken homes with a gay parent is for conservatives to stop stigmatizing gayness, stop trying to convert gay people into fake straight people, and stop trying to force gay people into sham straight marriages. There is only, as the anti-gay crowd sees it, the opportunity to block same-sex marriage and parenting, that is, the “planned” families Regnerus now claims not to care about because they’re so new and infrequent.

It would seem unclear, then, why anyone would focus on research about “average” gay families—families with both a gay parent and a broken relationship—unless you’re going to propose something to help those families. This, of course, Regnerus is not doing. The only explanation is that he’s digging in his heels to defend his discredited research, claiming that all along, he only meant to be studying broken gay homes. That, and he has clearly demonstrated that stigmatizing gay people is his very top priority. It’s no surprise that a federal judge in Michigan earlier this year dismissed Regnerus’ testimony against same-sex marriage as a farce, saying: “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” Hopefully the rest of the world will follow suit.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.