Comparing apples to oranges

 If same-sex marriage is legalized, then tolerance for it will be taught in schools.

If same-sex marriage is legalized, then it will be easier for gays and lesbians to parent children.

If same-sex marriage is legalized, then gay and lesbian parents will pass down their homosexual agenda to their children.

Same-sex marriage is dangerous to children.

The “dangerous to children” argument has been the most effective – and the most fear-based – ammunition against marriage equality rights, in my opinion. So how do you counter these attitudes, especially when they’re so pervasive? To start with, you can gather the facts, and then present the facts as, well, factually as possible. That’s what social science research is all about. And, for the last twenty years, that’s what many social science researchers have been doing with respect to same-sex marriage and parenting.

Charlotte Patterson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, is one of these researchers. One of the early pioneers of same-sex parenting research, her first studies of same-sex parenting were published back in 1996. Not surprisingly, her findings indicate overwhelmingly that children raised in same-sex parenting households are as well-adjusted and healthy as children raised by heterosexual parents. In the National Lesbian Longitudinal Family Study, which has been running for almost 20 years, Nanette Gartrell of UCSF has not only consistently found similarities between children raised by lesbians and those raised by heterosexual parents, but she has also identified various strengths that develop in children raised by same-sex parents. And, using 140 studies to back up his arguments Gregory Herek of UC Davis wrote an article for the American Psychologist that presented an empirically supported argument for same-sex marriage that included this statement: 

“Having same-sex parents isn’t at all harmful to children. Studies of gay and lesbian families consistently show that they are just as healthy as heterosexual families. The research also shows that having two parents is better than one, whether parents are heterosexual or homosexual” (Herek, 2006).  

Pretty ironclad statement, don’t you think? Well, here’s a truism about psychological research. Research findings are almost never consistent. It’s very rare to study a phenomenon and get the same result every single time. This is especially true in the social sciences, where we’re studying the complexities of our humanness. So it’s not outside the realm of possibility, even after 20 years, for someone to do a study on same-sex parenting and find something entirely different.

Guess what? This past week, in “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” published in Social Science Research, sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin  identified some notable differences between children raised by lesbian parents, compared to children raised by married heterosexual parents. These “notable differences,” mind you, are not trivial or positive – for example, adult children raised by non-heterosexual parents reported higher reliance on public assistance, higher unemployment, a higher rate of smoking and marijuana use, higher likelihood of being arrested and pleading guilty to a crime, higher rates of being touched sexually by a parent – the list of negative outcomes identified in this study goes on.

Social scientists, journalists, and political activists have been reacting strongly to this study since its publication.  A joint statement was released by the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the Family Equality Council, and Freedom to Marry, titled “Flawed Paper Claims to Overturn 30 Years of Credible Research that Shows Gay and Lesbian Parents are Good Parents: Conservative Author Behind New Paper Marked by Poor Methodology, Faulty Conclusions.” Some of the claims in the title are valid. For one thing, one egregious methodological error is that Regnerus compared apples to oranges. Instead of studying same-sex parents in committed relationships, he lumped together anyone who was raised by a parent who participated a same-sex romantic relationship at some point in their lives, and he compared them to children raised by married and committed heterosexual parents. Moreover, the “conservative author” label probably references the fact that Regnerus graduated from a Christian college, studies the intersection between sexuality and religion, and – most notably – received funding for his same-sex parenting study through two conservative-leaning foundations. All of this poses significant challenges to objectivity.

However, I do think a potential opportunity exists with this study. Instead of viewing this study as a setback for the marriage equality fight, what if the findings from this study were used to argue in favor of same-sex marriage? In “A Liberal War on Science?” William Saletan of Slate magazine says this: “Trust science. Don’t bury this study. Embrace it.”

I love that statement.

What we need to embrace, Saletan argues, is the stability factor. If we take the focus off of “gay and lesbian,” and instead consider the findings from a “family stability” perspective, the data speak loudly and clearly: Stable families yield healthy, well-adjusted children. And, in fact, that’s what Charlotte Patterson and Nanette Gartrell have found in their studies. Children who are raised by committed, financially secure lesbian couples grow up to be just fine. But when we look at the “family stability” literature (not just considering gay and lesbian parents, but all kinds of families), we find that family instability results in all sorts of problems.

Sounds like a powerful argument in favor of same-sex marriage, doesn’t it? If marriage promotes stability, and stability promotes health and well-being in children, well, that speaks volumes to me.

To read Mark Regnerus’ study, go to

To read William Saletan’s article in Slate magazine, go to




Filed under LGBT families, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, same-sex marriage

3 responses to “Comparing apples to oranges

  1. Lorri Doig

    Reminds me of a study touting the benefits of home schooling. It showed that the children studied did far better than those in public schools. It completely ignored the fact that the group of home schoolers studied were from affluent, well educated families, where the public school group included children whose families didn’t speak English, were from lower socioeconomic classes, etc. I think it was also sponsored by a conservative religious group.

  2. Socioeconomic status makes a huge difference in a lot of psychological research. It correlates strongly with educational outcomes, physical and mental health outcomes, and family stability, for example. What’s also interesting is that the Human Rights Campaign released a task force report a few months ago titled, “All Children Matter,” which indicated that children raised by same-sex parents in less accepting areas of the country (such as Mississippi or Louisiana) are more likely to experience adjustment and health problems than children raised by same-sex couples in more accepting areas. I think that’s notable.

  3. Scott Rose

    In Re: Mark Regnerus’s anti-gay parenting study:
    In this letter to his university president, I accuse Regnerus of SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT
    Please read and re-post

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