The other day I took up the Regnerus study of children raised with lesbian mothers as a positive sign of how things have changed for lesbians and gays. I saw the fuss over the publication of his research findings as a positive sign. A study constructed to show gay families in a bad light was getting the criticism it deserved, from all manner of mainstream sources. We’ve come a long way since electric shock therapy and book titles like Those Unhappy Gays.
Ultimately, an academic study cannot and should not be tried in a court of public opinion. A research project should be studied and evaluated by standards of good scholarship, openly and objectively. The most effective criticism of the study will ultimately be done by Regnerus’s peers in sociology and others with standing in the academic community who take the time to analyze his contribution to research properly. I am convinced that over time, as the New Family Structure Study (NFSS) is subjected to more and more critical analysis, it will be seen less as a contribution to knowledge than as an illustration of how insidiously homophobia seeps into our national cultural life.
As this process unfolds, those of us outside academia can of course speculate and ask questions. After putting that blog entry online the other day, I went back and looked a little more closely at the study. In doing so, I came up with questions and comments – about the structure of the study, how the study was conducted, and what the author’s focus suggests about his motivation – which I want to share with you here. I am assuming you have read the numerous criticisms of the study* and will not repeat them here, except when they lead to additional nagging questions than the ones I had earlier.
In looking at the way Regnerus structured his study, four questions emerge. First of all, Regnerus claimed that previous studies of gays raising children were not valid because the researchers chose gay kids to look at, instead of the general population. But the intent of those studies clearly was to demonstrate gays could raise children successfully. Of course they chose successful examples. Those studies were not about causation, but about making a point. Regnerus too claims no attempts were made to explain causation in his study. If so, why the insistence on random selection? (To hear Regnerus himself discuss his study, listen here.)
Secondly, for the sake of argument, let’s say that only a large study will do, that you need a large corpus on which to collect statistics on subjects selected at random to form meaningful conclusions. If that’s what Regnerus says needed to be done, why, you have to wonder, did he not do that?
In the days when his subjects were growing up, anti-gay sentiment was the norm. People had good reason to hide their homosexuality, and because gays had not yet started raising kids in large numbers, Regnerus was unable to locate a sufficient number of kids of lesbian and gay parents to satisfy his own demand.
He might have admitted at this point that the study he was calling for could not be made at the present time, and that he would have to wait until there were enough gay parents to show up on a mechanism generating subjects at random. He could then have matched stable gay families with stable straight families and carried out a more proper study.
For reasons that remain unclear, he did not do this. Evidently calculating that something would be better than nothing, when he couldn’t find the category he needed, he made one up. He decided to label as “lesbian” any woman who had ever had even a single experience of sex with another woman – as reported by her child, no less, whom she would have to share such information with, obviously. Just as the “pollution” theory of race concludes that a black person is a person with one drop of “black blood,” Regnerus’s definition of a lesbian is any woman who has had a single sexual experience with another woman. These ways of determining who’s black and who’s not, who’s gay and who’s not are good enough for racists and homophobes. They ought not be the way a social scientist creates categories. The Regnerus study hardly constitutes a “correction” in the lesbian head-of-family literature. We don’t have enough subjects for our study? This will have to do?
Third, questions were set up in such a way that skewed results were inevitable. So long as a parent’s romantic relationship with a same-sex partner did not cause family trauma and were unknown to the respondent, the study regards such parents as heterosexual. (Happy lesbians need not apply for this category, in other words.) If, however, a parent’s romantic relationship with a same-sex partner caused family trauma (which would lead to the child learning of it), then the parent gets identified as homosexual. The survey may have intended to look for homosexuality, but all it actually uncovered was family trauma, including complete family breakdown. Can anybody be surprised that family trauma is associated with negative outcomes for children?
And finally, this was an apples-to-oranges comparison. The IBF (Intact Biological Family) category is a sociological structure based on form. The LM (Lesbian mother) category is a psychological structure, based on sexual orientation. They are not only badly formed categories. They are not parallel when they are formed.
In addition to the structural flaws which overshadow what usefulness the study might have, there are questions about how the study was conducted that should give us pause. Normally a research project of this magnitude takes up to a year to process. How did this study come to be produced in only 40 days? This question is about smoke and not fire, obviously, but it does suggest that people suspecting a connection between Regnerus have some cause for their suspicions.** When asked why he used rightwing sources and not somebody like the National Institute of Health funding, for example, Regnerus responded:
I had a feeling when we started this project that it would not survive the politics of, in my opinion, the peer review system at the National Institute of Health (funding) -- and it takes so long to get money from them, and there are revisions and revisions; I understand that works to the long-term benefit of science, but some scholars don't feel like going that route.***
And then what are we to make of Regnerus’s statement:
…the longer the household stay of the two-LMs, the better the kids’ outcomes appear at face value, but a meaningful statistical comparison of those few is just not possible. Some feel it was unethical to have moved forward once I realized this. That’s extreme, a standard to which research prior to this study has not been held. I thought the information we could learn deserved a hearing.
Sure. If the information he could learn was what it was purported to be, it could be useful. And what’s this complaint about being held to a higher standard than the lower standard of previous studies he criticizes for their low standard? If he wants to keep his cake, he can’t very well eat it. And such thinking out loud on his part does not inspire confidence.
Once he realized his conclusions would not hold up if he included lesbian mother relationships characterized as stable, he really should have discontinued the study, not plowed through with paste-overs. This underlines the fact that this was a study of stable relationships (good) and unstable relationships (bad), not of lesbian vs. hetero mom-and-dad relationships. Why does he not own up to this? If Regnerus had really intended to demonstrate the value of "intact, biological families," he could have sought out children of straight parents who were divorced or widowed or unmarried and reached the same conclusion, one assumes. But he chose to substitute for “troubled straight families” “gay families.” And not real gay families, but families headed by people he falsely concludes will label themselves as gay. Why work in such a sloppy manner?
These questions lead us to wonder what was Regnerus up to in synthesizing such a hodgepodge group to set against his “intact” family group? Was this a conscious manipulation of data? Many were quick to assume the answer must be political. Regnerus adamantly denies this. In an exchange between Regnerus and one of his more insightful critics, William Saletan, in Slate, Regnerus asks,
Don’t you think if this were a right-wing conspiracy, it would be headed by someone who’s more savvy, political, one-sided, and predictable than I am? There is no conspiracy here, just a piece of contested social science from a study funded by a pair of organizations many of your readers distrust. Critics are disputing the meaning of the study—a meaning I have not assigned to it—as well as the very nerve to have conducted it in the first place. [emphasis mine]
Regnerus has to be pretty naïve to wonder where all the flak is coming from. He has just demonstrated that kids in troubled homes don’t do as well as children in non-troubled homes. Why did he go to all that trouble when we already have the common-sense answer? What are we to make of Regnerus’s claim that “the intact, biological family remains the safest bet”?
Safest bet? Really? Would he now like to do a study of children raised by black mothers and then reach the conclusion that statistically they do not do as well as children raised by white mothers? What would we all do with that information? Why take $800,000 to prove the obvious? Why not use it to research ways of improving the quality of the lives of children not raised in white-bread homes?
The NFSS study focuses on different family structures and concludes that one structure is best. If that were true, even if his study were not flawed and that claim could be made legitimately, what are we to do with this information? Do we now shut down families run by a single parent? Take kids who are adopted and put them back with their birth parents? Take kids away from same-sex parents and give them to somebody else? Where are we to go with Regnerus’s conclusions? He insists that he wanted the chips to fall where they may, that if it turned out that kids in “intact” homes with their own biological parents turned out to be better off, that we should have that information demonstrated empirically. Fine. Now what?
Back in the 70s when Californians were confronted by the Briggs initiative, which would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the public schools, Harvey Milk asked Briggs, “Since you know that most child molesters are straight, why are you going after the minority of molesters in the gay community and attacking all gays?” Briggs answer was informative. “We should eliminate the ones we can,” he responded.
That answer came to mind when it became clear that of all the groups involved in Regnerus’s study it would be the lesbians that would get the attention, allegedly because they appeared to be running the most dysfunctional families. Again – and this cannot be repeated too often – they were not running the most dysfunctional families. Regnerus’s study is so sloppy that there is no indication when he says lesbian that it’s lesbians he is talking about!
But that aside for present purposes, while the Regnerus study focused on not only gay and lesbian parents, but single mothers, parents who adopt, and other “new forms” of families which he hypothesized would not be “ideal” (hence the choice of control group), it is clear it’s the gay households he was after. Regnerus reveals his bias in the way he criticizes previous studies of gay parent households. In making his case for a better cross-section of American homes to compare with “intact” homes, he tells us that the “scholarly community” and “media,” have a “penchant” for focusing on “this most elite form of childbearing.” Elite is a political word in today’s public discourse. There’s nothing elite about middle class families who take in children as their own. Why label them elite? Why not “families of design?” Or “families whose children were clearly wanted”?
What does this focus on the (perfectly?) "intact" family on the one hand and the imperfect family on the other all lead to? Regnerus can obviously get by with the usual – I just made the bomb, the gun, the virus – it’s not up to me how it is used. Fair enough. One doesn’t want to criticize research simply because one doesn’t like its findings, obviously. But one can wonder why the researcher chose to ask one question, and not another.
In an interview on public radio with Cynthia Osborne, Regnerus’s colleague and participant in initial discussions of the study at the University of Texas Austin, Osborne observes that when we identify the fact that girls who don’t do well on math tests or blacks don’t do well in school, we do not jump to the conclusion that girls should not study math and blacks should not go to school. We do have to listen, however, to folks on the right argue that gays should not marry or adopt children, and are certain to use this flawed study to buttress their claim. Why was their task made so much easier? Can Regnerus really claim to be just the messenger and not part of the message?
The point, Osborne says, it that the question Regnerus asked was not the question we want asked. It’s not the question that we’re legislating, not the question that would aid in policy making. What’s troubling about all research on families, she says, and not just the Regnerus study, is that when studying any form of “other families” – adoption, step-families, same-sex families, single parenting, the child in those families has experienced disruption. To say that disruption can lead to problems is a truism – not a research finding. To say it’s a “safe bet” that intact homes are better than dysfunctional homes is not merely a truism. It’s a sign of wrong-headedness about how to engage with life as it is actually lived.
One can’t get into Regnerus’s head, of course, and seeing homophobia everywhere could of course be a sign of paranoia. The fact that he’s a former evangelical turned Roman Catholic may not have colored his choices. His right wing sponsors may not have influenced his findings. One still has to wonder, though, when it quacks like a duck why, given all the changes in attitude toward gays and lesbians since the days in which his subjects grew up, all the evidence of happy gay families, Regnerus would zero in on a time when homophobia was still strong. To prove what? That it had negative effects on kids? To what end?
Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, James Dobson’s lobbying group against LGBT rights, abortion rights, stem-cell research and global warming, after reviewing the NFSS study, has declared
The myths that children of homosexual parents are “no different” from other children and suffer “no harm” from being raised by homosexual parents have been shattered forever.
This is in direct contradiction to Regnerus’s own stated conclusion that his study has demonstrated no cause and effect connection between sexual orientation and dysfunctionality or that gays and lesbians make bad parents.
As Alvin McEwen of AlterNet points out, if Regnerus speaks out against such misappropriation of his study’s findings, he will retain some credibility. If he does not, one will have to conclude he is complicit in furthering the general efforts of his right wing sponsors to discredit gays and lesbians.
In the end, whatever Regnerus’s motives were is a side issue, and while asking about them may lead us to something we might have overlooked by not asking about them, we should not miss the real issue at stake here – that if we are going to use academic research to inform public policy, we need to get it right.
We find it frustrating and annoying that even the good that Regnerus may have done will be misused for political ends, and in this age when money seems to buy everybody and everything, it can set back the cause of gay liberation for a time.
But not forever. People like to fix things. Bad studies can have the effect of prompting good researchers into action.
Let’s hope that’s what happens here.
* If you are not familiar with the critiques, you might start with Burroway and Saletan and the follow-up dialogue between Saletan and Regnerus more recently. Or a very good blog summary here.
** There’s more on the smoke and fire question: The study’s main source of funding is the Witherspoon Institute. The Institute’s webpage pays lip service to independence and objectivity. They make a point of declaring they are encouraging a diverse team of experts to conduct the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), scholars who, they say “hold divergent views on the normative questions in contemporary debates over marriage and the family.”
At the same time, one member of the Witherspoon Institute is Jennifer Morse, a Proposition 8 spokesperson, founder of and president of the conservative and largely Roman Catholic oriented Ruth Institute (“one man one woman for life”), and colleague of Maggie Gallagher, chief spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage, a group so ideologically committed to the obvious argument that kids need stable homes and that gay homes are inherently unstable that one cannot imagine them endorsing any view to the contrary or supporting a study which would engender one.
The other source of funding is the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin organization whose mission statement includes includes support for “limited, competent government; a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual, and cultural activity; and a vigorous defense, at home and abroad, of American ideas and institutions.” Some of the Bradley Foundations grant recipients include Ed Meese III of the Heritage Foundation (2012), Jeb Bush (2011), Fox News commentator Michael Barone and Wall Street Journal editor Paul A. Gigot (2010). Once again, there is no reason why the Bradley Foundation might not be giving some of its money to furthering liberal causes like same-sex marriage, but one would probably not to want to bet too much money on it.
***Several people have filed complaints about the legitimacy of the study’s funding with the University of Texas. Read about those here.