The coauthor of my new book Debating Same-Sex Marriage has just published a New Republic piece claiming the new research on gay parenting gets everything wrong (at least according to the headline, which Corvino points out he’s not responsible for).
I say it’s the best gay-parenting study we have to date; he says it’s badly flawed and hardly a study of gay parenting at all. Which of us is right?
Let’s begin with his main critique, which is beginning to be echoed and I suspect will be the main critique of this study: It’s not a study of gay parenting at all.
Professor Corvino begins by asking:
What do the following all have in common?
A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women
A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children
A never-married straight male prison inmate who sometimes seeks sexual release with other male inmates
A woman who comes out of the closet, divorces her husband, and has a same-sex relationship at age 55, after her children are grown
Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor who was caught having drug fueled-trysts with a male prostitute over a period of several years
A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner
He answers: “They would all be counted as ‘Lesbian Mothers’ or ‘Gay Fathers’ in Mark Regnerus’s new study.”
In this, Professor Corvino is just plain wrong. Not a single one of these examples would be included in the lesbian mother or father category in Professor Regnerus’s new study. Adult children whose parents were not continuously married were asked if their mom or dad had a romantic relationship with a person of the same-sex. The study also allows us to determine whether and for how long the child lived with that same-sex romantic partner. None of Professor Corvino’s examples — prostitution, adultery, prison sex, and same-sex relationships that took place after the child was grown — would be in this pool.
Professor Corvino and other critics of this research have a point, but not as colorful a one as he wants to make.
Gay-parenting research like all research dealing with gay people begins with a problem of definition: Who counts as gay? Do you ask people about their sexual behavior? Their sexual attractions? Their romantic attractions? Their self-identity, and at what point in time? This is not a trivial problem because the pool of who counts as gay will greatly expand or contract depending on how you define what you are studying.
The definition this study adopts has its limitations — like all such definitions — but it came from the research focus: How to capture the representative experience of all adult children who lived with a gay parent in a romantic relationship. It turns out very few of these relationships look like Modern Family.
The New Family Structure Survey interviewed 15,000 people to come up with 175 young adults who reported their mother had a romantic relationship with another woman and 73 who reported their father had a romantic relationship with another man at some point during their childhood (1.7 percent of all young adults age 18–39).
Nintey-one percent of adult children who reported their mom had a lesbian romance said they lived with her during that time. Fifty-seven percent said they lived with her and her partner for more than four months. Twenty-three percent said they lived with her and her partner for more than three years. (Forty-two percent of adult children whose dad reported a gay relationship lived with him and his partner; only 24 percent for four months or more.)
Of these 175 adult children with lesbian moms, exactly two reported they had lived with these mothers for their entire childhood. So put it this way: In this first nationally representative survey of young adults, about 1.7 percent of all adult children reported their parent had a gay romantic relationship and of these roughly 1 percent reported a stable lesbian-mom partnership raised them. One percent of 1.7 percent equals infinitesimal. (For comparison, 58 percent reported spending their entire childhood with married biological parents.)
What we are dealing with here is likely a Murphy Brown effect. Or call it the Zach Walls effect. Our internal images of gay parenting, like our internal images of unwed mothering in the 1990s, are being formed by real or media generated images of what this phenomenon looks like that are not very similar to what is happening “out there.”
It’s quite likely that two educated women who raise a child together their whole life do a good job. Will gay marriage make the result more likely for children with gay parents? I dunno. Ask Mrs. Goodridge.
The overwhelming majority of children with a gay parent are the products of straight sex. Gay marriage (like all remarriage) is irrelevant for their well-being (i.e., children do not do better when their single moms remarry on average).
Will gay marriage make gay relationships more stable? We shall see, presumably, but the answer may well be “no.” The preliminary research, as I lay out in Debating Same-Sex Marriage, doesn’t show gay marriage makes couples more stable, compared to personal-commitment ceremonies, much less civil unions. (See pages 170–174 of the book for research and footnotes — Amazon is reporting it’s temporarily out of stock, but I’m told Oxford University Press will have a second printing out shortly.)
Meanwhile, the number of children potentially impacted by gay marriage — even if it has any benefits for these children (which is unknown) — is infinitesimal.
As I write in Debating Same-Sex Marriage — using published research that this new research confirms — “In sum, one-fifth of one-eighth of one percent of children in American might experience a benefit from gay marriage, assuming it stabilized their parents’ union more than private commitment ceremonies or civil unions.”
I conclude from this two things:
We are not doing gay marriage for the children.
Judges like Judge Vaughn Walker who strike down marriage laws based on the idea science has disproven the importance of the mother-father family are also wrong.
The New Family Structures Survey represents the best gay-parenting study to date in a number of extremely important respects: the number of outcomes studied, for example, ranging from psychological well-being to employment and arrest history. It asks adults children to report on their experience both now and growing up (which arguably is better than asking anxious lesbian moms if they think their kids are doing okay).
It has limitations: It cannot tell you how children do when they are raised by two moms in a stable lesbian partnership their whole childhood — because it can tell you: This is an incredibly rare experience for children.