Monday, June 18, 2012

It’s Getting Better

Homophobia, like racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and all the other “us” vs. “them” constructs human beings have created, is probably here to stay.  We’ll never be rid of these evils entirely, because they are grounded in our deepest fears and insecurities.  We pass them on to the next generation culturally, unconsciously, at the level of what we call “common sense,” making them hard to root out, especially once they get “sanctified” by religion and elevated to the level of divine approval.

But alongside religion is another strain, an appreciation for reason and the notions of the Enlightenment, an appreciation for universal human rights.  When Enlightenment moves ahead of religion in this endless tug of war, we advance.

This has been a good year in the battle against homophobia.  Historically, American whites went from Jim Crow values to supporting a black president, women went from not being allowed to vote before 1920 to near equality with men today, and gays went from association with “the love that dare not speak its name” and “I thought people like that killed themselves” to “What's the wuss?” Americans supporting same-sex marriage are now in the majority.

Seen in the larger slow-but-sure context of human rights progress, this already changed and still changing attitude towards LGBT people is justification for a cautious optimism.  Despite wholesale criticism of foot-dragging on the part of the government, Hillary Clinton’s speech before the United Nations on recognition of gay rights world wide, and Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage, have done wonders.   Consider also the about-face by Robert Spitzer, a man who has been referred to as “arguably the most influential psychiatrist of the 20th Century.”    He is credited with being the man behind the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  in 1973.  In 2001, he took a step backwards when he suggested one could will oneself out of homosexuality.   His remarks gave homophobes a field day.  But now Spitzer has admitted he was wrong and pulled the rug out from under the “pray the gay away” crowd once and for all.   

Not that there aren’t bumps in the road.   Spitzer asked Focus on the Family homophobe-in-chief, James Dobson to take down his misleading 2001 statement, since it no longer represented his views.  Dobson refused at first, arguing he has Spitzer’s written permission and is not breaking any laws.  Way to go, Mr. God-Person.  Check out footnote number 4 on their “Same-sex counseling” page.   It references Spitzer’s 2003 statement without informing readers Spitzer has changed his views on the subject.  On a related site, they call Spitzer’s most recent move a result of political pressure and compare him to Galileo, poor fellow, victim of the ideas of the day.  Find me a better contender for Chutzpah of the Year Award.   But in the end, anyone with a natural curiosity can see how Dobson has made a fool of himself with his intransigence.

Then there are the (for me, at least) fun examples.  All the silly people.

The folks at the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in Greensburg, Indiana, for example.   Somebody posted a YouTube of a four-year old from their flock singing “Ain’t no homo gonna make it to heaven.”   It shows the church congregation hooting and hollaring in support, and the kid’s father shouting out, “That’s my boy.” 

Don’t miss the woods for the trees, however.  While this upset all sorts of folk, the real story lies in the reaction around the country to the story.  This YouTube of talk show host David Pakman, for example, where he suggests giving the pastor a call and wonders aloud whether this constitutes child abuse. 

Then there’s young Caiden Cowger, a 14-year old in West Virginia, clearly channeling Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (he addresses his audience as “ladies and gentlemen”) with his own talk show (“the truth for the youth”).   Caiden uploaded a diatribe against gays, complete with the speech patterns of backwoods America – “younger people is turning out to be homosexuals…” and dumb as a doorpost claims such as “homosexuality is a belief,”  “thirty people in my county are homosexuals,” and “Obama is turning these kids gay.”   Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks takes him on

And  my favorite, currently - Pastor Worley, of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina, who suggested it would be a peachy keen idea to lock gays and lesbians up behind a electrified wire fence and drop food on them till they died a natural death.  Gays would die out, he said, apparently clueless of how babies are made.  (Hint to the good pastor - Gay folk are born mostly to straight mommies and daddies, not to gay ones.)   (For another look at the doorpost set, check out an interview Anderson Cooper has with one of Pastor Worley’s parishoners.)

Not so funny are the attempts by the literate conservative right to make a serious case against homosexuality.  The recent Regnerus study, for example.  Whether Mark Regnerus himself can be labeled a homophobe is not for me to say.  But there is little doubt the manipulation of his categories in his research project reflects a definite homophobic slant.   The way its findings are already being put to political use to fight gay marriage and gay adoption, even by writers of The New York Times, is homophobia at full bore.  

Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of over 30 published articles and book chapters on sexual behavior, religion, and family. 

Concerned that previous studies on gay and lesbian families were flawed or otherwise inadequate because subjects were selected on the basis of convenience, he set out to correct that weakness.*  With nearly $800,000 in funding from two right-wing organizations, The Witherspoon Institute** and the Bradley Foundation, Regnerus collected data on 2500 people from a corpus of 15,000 Americans selected at random.  Results of his study, known as the New Family Structures Study, were published last week in Social Science Research

The goal of the study, to “provide scholars with an up-to-date portrait of the association between a variety of different family structure background experiences and the welfare of young adults” seems to have been met.  And that “portrait” shows, among other things, in Regnerus’ words, that “the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families.”

It takes no time at all before one can smell a rat in these conclusions.  If Regnerus had made the claim that children from “intact” homes do better than children from “dysfunctional” homes, there would be nothing to complain about.  There also would be no reason for doing such a study, since proving functional is better than dysfunctional is up there with proving the sun rises in the East.  It turns out that proving the sun rises in the East is all that Regnerus actually did, ultimately.  He has essentially two groups: the “control group” - families where children live in mom and dad homes, where practically nobody is into drugs, there is no adultery or divorce (because that’s how the category is defined) and everybody lives happily ever after – and the “other” group, where everybody who is disqualified from the “happy” group is put – kids of divorced parents, kids living with single parents, and kids being raised by gays and lesbians.  That group, it turns out, does less well – it has more problems with drugs and crime, does less well educationally, and – you name the dysfunction.  More about this in a minute.

How, one wonders, did Regnerus get away with pulling off such a stunt in the first place?  One gets funded for research by showing a “lacuna” in the literature.  In this case, Regnerus argued, with justification,  that previous studies of gay families showing them to be as healthy as non-gay families are flawed, because the data for those studies are drawn from “convenience” samples, and not random samples.  Somebody wishing to study children of lesbians and gays would go to gay organizations to find their subjects, say, and perhaps use the “snowball” method of collecting them, asking the subjects to find other subjects from among their friends and acquaintances.  This method, Regnerus argues, almost guarantees a gay-positive data base.  When children from these homes, in which the children who are wanted and given special attention are compared to children from the average mother/father home, where they may be wanted or not, abused or not, it’s no wonder it will turn out that the children from gay households do as well as or better than their so-called traditional family counterparts.   But what if instead of selecting from happy gay families one selected from the larger population at random?

The reasonableness of that argument is what normally might get him the funding he needed.   Problem is, 800K is a lot of money these days for an academic study, so Regnerus turned to right winger sources, no doubt, because they are both flush and have a vested interest in any study aiming to show intact families in a positive light.  Regnerus' credentials as an evangelical, he maintains, have nothing to do with it.  And Witherspoon swears high and low they wouldn't dream of coloring the findings.  The fact that analysis of his data shows that children raised in “intact families with a mother and a father” are much better off than children raised in gay families, well, it could just as easily have gone the other way.  At least you can't say the biases of previous research have not been corrected. 

Not so fast.  If you look at how he selected subjects for his study, something pops out at you.  First, he asked the question, “From when you were born until age 18 … did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?” If the respondents said yes, they were put in the “gay father” (GF) or “lesbian mother” (LM) category, regardless of how they answered other questions, and regardless of whether or not their parents identified as gay.  If they said no, and further questions showed they lived with the same mother and father all the while they were growing up, they were classified as IBF (children of an “intact biological family.” )   If they were adopted, they were put into a separate “adopted” category.  Children from divorced parents, children living with step parents and children in single-parent households were similarly separated out.   Unbelievably (and can this be an accident?), children from broken families were excluded from the IBF category but included in the GF and LM categories.  14% of the subjects in this group had spent time in foster care.

In other words, the paper inappropriately compares children raised by two heterosexual parents for 18 years, on the one hand, with children who experience family transitions – like foster care – or who live with single or divorced parents, or in blended families, on the other.   The limited number of respondents arbitrarily classified as having a gay or lesbian parent are combined regardless of their experiences of family instability.  The findings, it turns out, are that the categories look like what the categories were designed to look like.

What’s wrong with the methodology is captured by John Corvino:

Question: 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

Give up?   The answer -- assuming that they all have biological or adopted adult children between the ages of 18 and 39 -- is that they would all be counted as "lesbian mothers" or "gay fathers" in Mark Regnerus's new study.

Corvino is hardly alone in spotting the weaknesses of the Regnerus study.  His criticisms are echoed by William Saletan in Slate, Jim Burroway in Box Turtle Bulletin, Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic Monthly, Amy Davidson at The New Yorker (“breathtakingly sloppy”), Nathaniel Frank at The Los Angeles TimesAnna North, at BuzzfeedRyan Jaslow at CBS News, Wayne Besen  Andrew Sullivan  at The Daily Beast, and last, but not least, by Mark Regnerus’ own reservations.

The study has it defenders, of course: Dr. Keith Ablow of Fox News, Ross Douthat at the New York Times, Benedict Carey, also at the New York Times, Patrick F. Fagan of MARRI (The Marriage and Religion Research Institute), and Michael J. McManus of Marriage Savers.

I am sure I do not have an exhaustive list, just a list collected as I read around in the subject this past week, a little each day.  To get the flavor of the case for or against the Regnerus study, I suggest you do the same.  Read around in the arguments.   They are eye-openers.  Note how the critics zero in on the flawed methodology and the supporters of the study tend to reveal the “traditional family” or “God’s will” ideology.  Or, like Benedict Carey at the New York Times, make statements like this:

Gay-rights groups attacked the study, financed by conservative foundations, as biased and poorly done even before its publication on Sunday in the journal Social Science Research. 

But outside experts, by and large, said the research was rigorous, providing some of the best data yet comparing outcomes for adult children with a gay parent with those with heterosexual parents.... if the split were between gays on the one hand and experts on the other, rather than between those looking, for the most part, at the methodology and finding it wanting, and those looking at the conclusions and finding them to their liking.  Nothing new here, given the characteristic divide in America’s culture war between reason and evidence-based claims on the one hand, and religion and asserted truth on the other. 

My point is not that the criticism of the Regnerus study overwhelms the support of it, although that claim can be made, but that people now have wide access to evidence that homophobic America is being called to task.

Cynics will point out that a list of lefty publications does not a case make, and that Americans will go on believing what they want to believe.

Illusions, however, once shattered, don’t get put back together.

We will always have new illusions, of course.  But the illusions based on historic misrepresentations of LGBT folk are popping like soap bubbles.

And that is a good thing.

*Regnerus points out the drawbacks of convenience sampling: “Suppose, for example, that the respondents have higher levels of education than comparable lesbians who do not frequent such events or bookstores, or who live elsewhere. If such a sample is used for research purposes, then anything that is correlated with educational attainment—like better health, more deliberative parenting, and greater access to social capital and educational opportunities for children—will be biased.” 

 ** The Witherspoon Institute also has ties to the Family Research Council, the NationalOrganization for Marriage, and ultra-conservative Catholic groups like OpusDei


William D. Lindsey said...

Alan, yours is far and away the clearest and most concise summary (and takedown) of Regnerus's study I've yet seen. Congratulations on reaching even my statistics-muddled cerebral cortex!

I plan to recommend this posting at my blog today.

Alan McCornick said...

Thanks, Bill, for the compliment, but I believe there's a better summary to be found at:

which I recommend to one and all.