Study: Negative findings for children of gay parents don't hold up to scrutiny

  • May 20, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A 2012 study by a University of Texas sociologist has been widely cited to argue that lesbians and gay men don’t make good parents. Now researchers at Indiana University and the University of Connecticut have reanalyzed the same data and reached a very different conclusion.

The new study points to what the authors describe as errors or questionable decisions in the way data were coded or classified in the initial paper. Those misclassifications, they show, resulted in findings that are “fragile” and do not hold up under alternative methodological choices.

“We believe in science,” said Brian Powell, the James H. Rudy professor and Department of Sociology chair at the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “We believe that the best way to judge a study -- especially one as controversial as the study on same-sex parents -- is to reanalyze the data. Our reanalysis leads us to seriously question the original conclusions” of the earlier study.

Powell and Simon Cheng, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, are the authors of "Measurement, methods, and divergent patterns: Reassessing the efforts of same-sex parents," published in the journal Social Science Research and available online.

They focus on the New Family Structures Study, a 2012 study by University of Texas researcher Mark Regnerus that concluded adult children raised by gay or lesbian parents reported negative social, emotional and relational outcomes compared to those raised in “intact biological families.”

The Regnerus paper, also published in Social Science Research, received significant attention because it was based on a large, random sample of subjects and its findings conflicted with those from previous studies. It has been frequently cited in arguments over same-sex marriage.

Cheng said he and Powell, as scholars of family sociology, naturally were curious about the Regnerus study, given that its findings were different from those of previous research.

“When we looked at the article, there were things that struck us that didn’t seem right,” Cheng said. “We decided we would stay away from the ideological arguments people were making. We wanted to speak from the evidence.”

In their article, Powell and Cheng examine the same survey data, which Regnerus has made available, and dispute his methods and findings. The first researchers to reanalyze the New Family Structures Study data, they write that misclassification of respondents and other factors skewed the conclusions.

  • Of the 236 subjects that Regnerus identified as having been raised by a lesbian mother or gay father, 24 reported they had never actually lived with that parent.
  • Another 34 said they lived with a lesbian mother or gay father for less than a year. “In other words,” Powell and Chen write, “approximately one-fourth of the young adults allegedly raised by a same-sex parent reported either never living with the parent or living for a year or less.”
  • The sample included subjects whose responses were “at best inconsistent and illogical,” such as a respondent who reported having always lived alone but also having always lived with a mother, father and two grandparents.

The most blatant example of a response that should have been rejected but wasn’t, they said, was from “a 25-year-old man who reports that his father had a romantic relationship with another man, but also reports that he (the respondent) was 7-feet 8-inches tall, weighed 88 pounds, was married eight times and had eight children.” Another respondent claimed to have been arrested at age 1.

In all, Powell and Cheng say at least a third and possibly over two-fifths of the 236 subjects in the sample were miscounted by Regnerus as having been raised by a gay or lesbian parent. Once those subjects are more accurately classified and other mistakes in the analysis corrected, they say, differences are very small or non-existent between adult children who were raised by gay and lesbian parents and those who were raised by heterosexual parents.

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