A Social Scientific Response to the Regnerus Controversy

by W. Bradford Wilcox

Same-sex marriage is one of the most contentious and vexing issues now facing our nation. It is perhaps in part for that reason that the new study on same-sex parenting by University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus, which finds that young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex relationships are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems, has been subject to such sustained and sensational criticism from dozens of media outlets, from the Huffington Post to The New Yorker and The New Republic. These outlets have alleged, respectively, that his research is “anti-gay,” “breathtakingly sloppy,” and “gets everything wrong.”

Although Regnerus’s article in Social Science Research is not without its limitations, as social scientists, we think much of the public criticism Regnerus has received is unwarranted for three reasons.

First, there are limitations with prior research on this subject that have seldom been discussed by the media. The vast majority of studies published before 2012 on this subject have relied upon small, nonrepresentative samples that do not represent children in typical gay and lesbian families in the United States. By contrast, Regnerus relies on a large, random, and representative sample of more than 200 children raised by parents who have had same-sex relationships, comparing them to a random sample of more than 2,000 children raised in heterosexual families, to reach his conclusions. This is why sociology professor Paul Amato, chair of the Family section of the American Sociological Association and president of the National Council on Family Relations, wrote that the Regnerus study was “better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these [different family] groups in the population” (“The Well-being of Children with Gay and Lesbian Parents.” Social Science Research 41:4 [forthcoming]).  We are disappointed that many media outlets have not done their due diligence in investigating the scientific validity of prior studies, and acknowledging the superiority of Regnerus’s sample to most previous research.

Second, Regnerus has been chided for comparing young adults from gay and lesbian families that experienced high levels of family instability to young adults from stable heterosexual married families. This is not an ideal comparison. (Indeed, Regnerus himself acknowledges this point in his article, on page 766, and calls for additional research on a representative sample of planned gay and lesbian families; such families may be more stable but are very difficult to locate in the population at large.) But what his critics fail to appreciate is that Regnerus chose his categories on the basis of young adults’ characterizations of their own families growing up, and the young adults whose parents had same-sex romantic relationships also happened to have high levels of instability in their families of origin. This instability may well be an artifact of the social stigma and marginalization that often faced gay and lesbian couples during the time (extending back to the 1970s, in some cases) that many of these young adults came of age. It is also worth noting that Regnerus’s findings related to instability are consistent with recent studies of gay and lesbian couples in countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, which find similarly high patterns of instability among same-sex couples. Even Judith Stacey, a prominent critic of Regnerus’s study, elsewhere acknowledges that studies suggest that lesbian “relationships may prove less durable” than heterosexual marriages. Thus, Regnerus should not be faulted for drawing a random, representative sample of young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex romantic relationships and also happened to have experienced high levels of family instability growing up.

Third, another study published this month in the Journal of Marriage and Family comes to conclusions that parallel those of Regnerus’s study. This study finds that “children in same-sex parent families scored lower than their peers in married, 2-biological parent households” on two academic outcomes, and that these differences can be attributed to higher levels of family instability in same-sex families, compared to intact, biological married families. This study was also based on a large, nationally representative, and random survey of school-age children; moreover, the same-sex parents in this study lived together. The parallels between the findings in this study and Regnerus’s study strongly call into question The New Republic’s claim that the Regnerus study “gets everything wrong.”

To be clear: We do not think that these new studies settle the nation’s ongoing debate about gay parenting, same-sex marriage, and the welfare of children. In fact, research on same-sex parenting based on nationally representative samples is still in its infancy. But we think that the Regnerus study, which is one of the first to rely on a large, random, and representative sample of children from parents who have experienced same-sex relationships, has helped to inform the ongoing scholarly and public conversation about same-sex families in America. Indeed, it is possible to interpret Regnerus’s findings as evidence for the need for legalized gay marriage, in order to support the social stability of such relationships. As social scientists, our hope is that more such studies will be forthcoming shortly, and that future journalistic coverage of such studies, and this contentious topic, will be more civil, thorough, and thoughtful than has been the coverage of the new study by Professor Mark Regnerus.

Byron Johnson, Baylor University
Douglas Allen, Simon Fraser University
Peter Arcidiacono, Duke University
John Bartkowski, University of Texas at San Antonio
David Eggebeen, Penn State University
Michael Emerson, Rice University
Ana Cecilia Fieler, University of Pennsylvania
Alan Hawkins, Brigham Young University
William Jeynes, California State University at Long Beach
Loren Marks, Louisiana State University
Margarita Mooney, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Stephen Robinson, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame
Rodney Stark, Baylor University
James Stoner, Louisiana State University
Peter Uhlenberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia
Bradley Wright, University of Connecticut

(Affiliations listed for identification purposes only.)