In his new Social Science Journal study, Mark Regnerus poses a question: “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” The answer to this — in both the academic literature and the imagination of the American public — has changed dramatically in less than a generation. “Fifteen years ago,” Regnerus explained at an event at the nonpartisan Institute for American Values, biological, heterosexual families were “reflexively regarded as the best environment for children.” This subsequently gave way to the notion that there were “no meaningful differences” in outcomes for children raised in non-traditional arrangements. Finally it was suggested that children “might actually be better off being raised by a gay couple.”
Although there is little hard evidence to support such a conclusion, advocates of same-sex marriage and gay adoption have declared the science to be settled. Most famous, perhaps, of such declarations is the 2010 paper by social scientists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, who contended that “based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor.” This contention — that homosexual parenting is either neutral or better than traditional family structures — has found its way into our academic, legal, and cultural conversation and is rarely questioned. Hence the Ninth Circuit’s declaration: “Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy, successful, and well-adjusted. The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.”
Regnerus’s study was designed to reexamine this question — a difficult task, to say the least — by expanding the sample size and improving upon the methodology of previous surveys. The U.S. Census, for example, collects a lot of useful information but, because it does not ask questions about sexual orientation, much of its contribution to the topic must be inferred. Conversely, many academic studies that use the small-sample-size “snowball technique” — a process by which current subjects of a study recruit others from among their acquaintances to take part in it — can be misleading. One such study, discussed in Regnerus’s paper, sampled women who frequented lesbian bookstores, events, and newspapers; the problem with this popular approach is that it narrowed down the samples to the educated, probably affluent, and socially similar, and it produced a limited understanding as a result. Such studies have proliferated in recent years.
The first thing that Regnerus found is that gay households with children are located in the same geographical areas as the households of straight couples raising kids. Contrary to stereotypes, there is no real concentration of children where gays tend to live en masse. For example, as there are few children in San Francisco’s households overall, there are also few children living with gays in San Francisco. In fact, Georgia is the state that has the most children living with same-sex couples. Despite being allegedly less gay-friendly, Middle America is very well represented in the gay-couple-with-child demographic. And consistent with general trends, Latino gay couples have more children than do white gay couples.
Regnerus found that children in the study rarely spent their entire childhoods in the households of their gay parent and partner. Only two of the 175 subjects who reported having a mother in a lesbian relationship spent their whole childhood with the couple, and no children studied spent their entire childhood with two gay males. The numbers drop off pretty sharply as time progressed, too: For example, 57 percent of children spent more than four months with lesbian parents, but only 23 percent spent more than three years. This is interesting in and of itself, but it has serious implications for the study — implications to which I will later return.
Ultimately, Mark Regnerus set out to answer the question of whether children who have parents in a same-sex relationship experience disadvantages when compared with children raised by their biological, married parents. The answer, contra the zeitgeist, appears to be a resounding yes. Children with a parent in a same-sex relationship “underperform” in almost every category. Some of these differences may be relatively benign — whether one voted in the last presidential election, for example — but most are decidedly not. One deficit is particularly worrying: Less than 2 percent of children from intact, biological families reported experiencing sexual abuse of some nature, but that figure for children of same-sex couples is 23 percent. Similarly disturbing is that 14 percent of children from same-sex couples have spent some time in foster care, compared with around 2 percent of the American population at large. Arrest, drug experimentation, and unemployment rates were all higher among children from same-sex families.
What should we take away from this? Well, this is where it gets tricky. To compare children raised by same-sex parents with the “gold standard” — i.e., biological parents who remained married and alive — is problematic. Given the way the study is set up, one could fairly ask whether this is not so much an analysis of homosexual parenting versus heterosexual parenting, but of childhood stability versus instability. By definition, any child raised by two members of the same sex is going to be missing at least one of their biological parents and will probably have experienced some instability in moving from the biological dyad to whatever arrangement replaced it. And, as explained above, most of the children studied spent only a few years with their same-sex parents, which makes it likely that their family arrangement changed more than once and, thus, that their childhood was unstable.
Moreover, given that the study is a snapshot of a time period that predated legalization of gay marriage (in some states), one might speculate that social stigma played a role in Regnerus’s data, and that such stigma will have a smaller effect in future surveys. Indeed, one should concede that people could legitimately employ Regnerus’s study to justify gay marriage on the grounds that societal disapproval of unmarried gay parents leads to the very instability that causes their children to experience negative outcomes: Marriage between gay partners will enhance the family’s stability and therefore be good for the children. I consider this to be a step too far — the high rate of divorce among gays does not suggest that same-sex households will soon be a model of stability — but it is worth consideration.
Regnerus’s study is a success insofar as it answers the fundamental question of whether children raised by same-sex couples end up differently: Clearly they do, and it does not require a conservative viewpoint to see that “differently” very often means “worse.” It is debatable, though, whether this is an indictment of same-sex households or of instability. Indeed, the major takeaway from the report is less an indictment that same-sex households are a negative thing and more an affirmation that intact, biological households are a positive thing. Put simply, if you want to give your children the best start in life, you should have children inside of wedlock and stay together for the duration. But then, we already knew that.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.