We now return to the overarching question of this paper: Are we witnessing the emergence of a new family form that provides a context for children that is equivalent to the traditional marriage-based family? Even after an extensive reading of the same-sex parenting literature, the author cannot offer a high confidence, data-based “yes” or “no” response to this question. To restate, not one of the 59 studies referenced in the 2005 APA Brief (pp. 23–45; see Table 1) compares a large, random, representative sample of lesbian or gay parents and their children with a large, random, representative sample of married parents and their children. The available data, which are drawn primarily from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalizable claim either way. Such a statement would not be grounded in science. To make a generalizable claim, representative, large-sample studies are needed—many of them (e.g., Table 2).
Some opponents of same-sex parenting have made “egregious overstatements”97 disparaging gay and lesbian parents. Conversely, some same-sex parenting researchers seem to have contended for an “exceptionally clear”98 verdict of “no difference” between same-sex and heterosexual parents since 1992. However, a closer examination leads to the conclusion that strong, generalized assertions, including those made by the APA Brief, were not empirically warranted.99 As noted by Shiller (2007) in American Psychologist, “the line between science and advocacy appears blurred” (p. 712).
The scientific conclusions in this domain will increase in validity as researchers: (a) move from small convenience samples to large representative samples; (b) increasingly examine critical societal and economic concerns that emerge during adolescence and adulthood; (c) include more diverse same-sex families (e.g., gay fathers, racial minorities, and those without middle-high socioeconomic status); (d) include intact, marriage-based heterosexual families as comparison groups; and (e) constructively respond to criticisms from methodological experts.100 Specifically, it is vital that critiques regarding sample size, sampling strategy, statistical power, and effect sizes not be disregarded. Taking these steps will help produce more methodologically rigorous and scientifically informed responses to significant questions affecting families and children.
The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a social-science data-collection project that fielded a survey to a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18–39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements. In this debut article of the NFSS, I compare how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types. The results reveal numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents. The results are typically robust in multivariate contexts as well, suggesting far greater diversity in lesbian-parent household experiences than convenience-sample studies of lesbian families have revealed. The NFSS proves to be an illuminating, versatile dataset that can assist family scholars in understanding the long reach of family structure and transitions.
Using a new, “gold standard” data set of nearly 3,000 randomly selected American young adults, Mr. Regnerus looked at their lives on 40 measures of social, emotional and relationship outcomes.
He found that, when compared with adults raised in married, mother-father families, adults raised by lesbian mothers had negative outcomes in 24 of 40 categories, while adults raised by gay fathers had negative outcomes in 19 categories.
Mr. Regnerus‘ study of 2,988 persons ages 18 to 39 — including 175 adults raised by lesbian mothers and 73 adults raised by gay fathers — marks the first research from the new dataset, which initially included some 15,000 persons.
The second study, also in Social Science Research, takes a critical look at the basis of an oft-cited American Psychological Association (APA) report on gay parenting.
The APA brief says, “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents,” said Loren Marks, associate professor at the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University.
However, after looking at the 59 studies that undergird this assertion, “the jury is still out,” Mr. Marks said. “The lack of high-quality data leaves the most significant questions [about gay parenting] unaddressed and unanswered.”
Problems with the APA-cited studies were their tiny size; dependence on wealthy, white, well-educated lesbian mothers; and a failure to examine common outcomes for children, such as their education, employment and risks for poverty, criminality, early childbearing, substance abuse and suicide. Instead, the APA studies often looked at children’s gender-role behaviors, emotional functioning and sexual identity.
Despite considerable research showing that children of same-sex parents fare just as well as children with heterosexual parents, two papers — a review of existing studies and a new study — published June 10 in Elsevier’s Social Science Research, find insufficient data to draw any definitive conclusions.
The review by Dr. Loren Marks from Louisiana State University finds that much of the science that forms the basis for the highly regarded 2005 official brief on same-sex parenting by the American Psychological Association (APA) does not stand up to scrutiny. The new study by University of Texas sociologist and professor Mark Regnerus, provides compelling new evidence that numerous differences in social and emotional well-being do exist between young adults raised by women who have had a lesbian relationship and those who have grown up in a nuclear family. Dr. Marks reviewed studies published between 1980 and 2005 cited by the 2005 official APA brief which asserted that: “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.”
“The jury is still out on whether being raised by same-sex parents disadvantages children,” explains Marks. “However, the available data on which the APA draws its conclusions, derived primarily from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalized claim either way.”
Of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief, more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples that did not include any minority individuals or families; nearly half lacked a heterosexual comparison group; and few examined outcomes that extend beyond childhood such as intergenerational poverty, educational attainment, and criminality, which are a key focus of studies on children of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. In other words, “A lack of high quality data leaves the most significant questions unaddressed and unanswered,” concludes Marks.
According to his [Regnerus] findings, children of mothers who have had same-sex relationships were significantly different as young adults on 25 of the 40 (63%) outcome measures, compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both their married, biological parents. For example, they reported significantly lower levels of income, more receipt of public welfare, lower levels of employment, poorer mental and physical health, poorer relationship quality with current partner, and higher levels of smoking and criminality.
In a series of commentaries published in the same issue of Social Science Research, three family researchers share their views on both studies. David Eggebeen, Associate Professor of Human Development and Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, remarks, “Dr. Marks’ paper, by turning a bright light on the shortcomings of previous work, challenges researchers to develop better data and conduct kinds of analyses that allow more confidence in generalizations. The Regnerus paper introduces a data set based on a national probability sample that has the potential to address some of Mark’s criticisms. The analyses in the Regnerus paper are provocative but far from conclusive. These very preliminary findings should not detract from the real importance of this paper, the description of a new data set that offers significant advantages.”
“Whether same-sex parenting causes the observed differences cannot be determined from Regnerus’ descriptive analysis,” cautions Professor Cynthia Osborne from the University of Texas at Austin. “Children of lesbian mothers might have lived in many different family structures and it is impossible to isolate the effects of living with a lesbian mother from experiencing divorce, remarriage, or living with a single parent. Or, it is quite possible, that the effect derives entirely from the stigma attached to such relationships and to the legal prohibitions that prevent same-sex couples from entering and maintaining ‘normal relationships’.”
Regnerus’s analysis purports to debunk the claim that children from same-sex families display no notable disadvantages when compared to children from other family forms, including intact, biological, two-parent families—what Regnerus calls the “no differences” paradigm. Had the study actually focused on “same-sex families,” it might have shed some light on the issue.
Instead, Regnerus—a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin—asked respondents whether their mothers or fathers had ever had a same-sex relationship, regardless of the duration of the relationship and “regardless of any other household transitions.” He then allowed those answers to trump others in order to increase the “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” sample size and treated all of the family-form categories as mutually exclusive, even though they are not. (To use the Haggard example: although he is still technically in an “intact biological family,” he would be counted among the “Gay Father” families in this study.)
In other words, Regnerus’ “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” categories (unlike the “Intact Biological Family” Category) included children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and, notably, a large number from divorced parents. Regnerus then observes in the resulting data that the children of his “Lesbian Mothers” and “Gay Fathers” look less like children of married biological parents than they do like children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and divorced parents. Well, duh.
Problem #1: Identifying a Same-Sex Relationship Doesn’t Tell Us Anything About the Nature of the Relationship.
Problem #2: Arbitrary Decisions in Dealing with Overlaps Between Categories Make the LM and GF Categories Heterogeneous While the Other Categories Remain Relatively Homogeneous.
Problem #3: It Doesn’t Study Children Who Grew Up In Gay- or Lesbian-Led Households.
Problem #4: This Study Makes The Wrong Comparison.
First, the results do not claim to establish causality between parenting and child outcomes. . . . That said, however, the study controlled for variables like age, gender, race, level of mother’s education, perceived household income while growing up, the degree of legislative gay-friendliness of the respondent’s home state, and experience of being bullied as a youth. Controls help eliminate alternative explanations for a given outcome, making the causal link between parenting structure and children’s outcomes more likely when the results are statistically significant after controls.
Second, the kind of gay parenting identified was rarely planned by two gay parents. The study found that the children who were raised by a gay or lesbian parent as little as 15 years ago were usually conceived within a heterosexual marriage, which then underwent divorce or separation, leaving the child with a single parent. That parent then had at least one same-sex romantic relationship, sometimes outside of the child’s home, sometimes within it. To be more specific, among the respondents who said their mother had a same-sex romantic relationship, a minority, 23%, said they had spent at least three years living in the same household with both their mother and her romantic partner. Only 2 out of the 15,000 screened spent a span of 18 years with the same two mothers. Among those who said their father had had a same-sex relationship, 1.1% of children reported spending at least three years together with both men.
Therefore, while critics of the NFSS have faulted it for lacking comparisons between children of IBFs and the children of committed and intact gay or lesbian couples, this was attempted, but was not feasible. Despite drawing from a large, representative sample of the U.S. population, and despite using screening tactics designed to boost the number of respondents who reported having had a parent in a same-sex relationship, a very small segment reported having been parented by the same two women or two men for a minimum of three years. Although there is much speculation that today there are large numbers of same-sex couples in the U.S. who are providing a stable, long-term parenting relationship for their children, no studies based upon large, random samples of the U.S. population have been published that show this to be true, and the above-cited studies of different nations show that on average, same-sex couple relationships are more short-lived than those of opposite-sex couples.