UT professor faces opposition to controversial gay parenting study

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UT associate professor of Sociology Mark Regnerus has received national attention for a new study questioning “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” Regnerus denies claims of political bias in his research.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

When Austin resident Dawn Bayer looks at her three adult children, she considers her parenting journey a success. Although she began raising her children within a married heterosexual relationship, Bayer has been in lesbian relationships for 14 years. She is one of the people who disagrees with a new UT study finding children raised by gay parents are at a significant disadvantage.

Published in the July issue of Social Science Research, the study was led by UT associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus and encountered a swirl of media scrutiny last week. Regnerus said his study hoped to answer the question, “Is there no difference between growing up with a gay parent as opposed to other forms of family structures?” Critics have said Regnerus’ study is flawed because he did not include enough stable gay couples in his analysis. He has also received backlash from LGBT advocates because he received funding from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, two organizations known to support conservative ideals.

In an interview with The Daily Texan, Regnerus said he stands by everything he wrote.

“I stand by everything I did, said and wrote,” Regnerus said. “I don’t have a political axe to grind. I know the funders are conservative. I don’t know what they make of this. I will always follow where the data leads.”

Bayer said her success in raising her children while maintaining same-sex relationships made the results of the study particularly upsetting.

“I was disappointed,” Bayer said. “That might be an understatement. I have three thriving adult children who have been raised in a lesbian household since the ages of seven, nine and 11.”

Bayer has been with her current partner for three years. After divorcing her children’s father, Bayer was told that revealing her sexuality could cost her the custody of her kids.

“The attorney told me, ‘You cannot tell anyone in the state of Texas that you are gay. It is absolutely possible that you could lose your children because of your sexuality,’” Bayer said. “At the time, it was a different world.”

Regnerus compared adult children raised in family structures such as “intact bio families,” which include married heterosexual couples, with children raised by gay or lesbian parents. Regnerus began the study in the fall of 2010 and used a nationally representative population-based sampling method, the same method used in the U.S. census, which differs from other studies that seek out individual people to survey.

The study compared children using 40 different categories, observing aspects of their adult life: income, voting status, current sexual orientation, depression level and current self-reported level of happiness.

“We found that there are differences between kids who grew up with a mom in a lesbian relationship and kids who grew up with mom and dad who were married and who are still married today,” Regnerus said. “It’s challenging because family structure is not a static thing, so deciding who is going to be analyzed and what the categories are calls for a lot of subjective decisions.”

In one instance, Regnerus reported significant statistical differences in categories such as education, employment status, depression and marijuana use between children raised by heterosexual couples and those raised by women who had lesbian relationships.

Regnerus said the study has been widely criticized for not including stable lesbian households. Only two of the children from the study spent their entire lives raised by a lesbian couple, he said.

“There’s not enough statistical power to tell if there are differences between those small handful of stable lesbian couple families,” he said. “I would assume that they would be doing better. Stability is good. That was one clear message of the study.”

Travis Knoll, a Latin American studies senior, was adopted when he was six years-old by a single gay man after spending much of his childhood in foster care. Knoll said the sacrifices made by his father and those who helped raise him were invaluable parts of his upbringing.

“My father’s orientation did indeed influence how I was raised,” Knoll said. “It influenced my character positively. I felt I was being raised in a community. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.”

Knoll said the results of the study were presented without an articulated point, which made the ultimate intention of the study unclear.

“A public intellectual has a responsibility not to just publish numbers, but to also be very clear about what they mean. I think he has yet to clarify that,” Knoll said. “It almost seems kind of naïve to think that someone who is funding his project with such a [conservative] history doesn’t have an agenda.”

Knoll also said he hopes Regnerus’ “numbers won’t be used to justify issues” against homosexuals.

He said the larger issue revolves around what is best for children who are currently in need of stable homes.

“There are thousands of children waiting for adoption by competent gay couples, and they can’t be adopted through certain agencies because it’s against their principles, or because the state still prefers to keep them in the foster systems, which are very temporary and don’t provide stability for the child,” Knoll said. “So regardless of the study, the real question is how can we assure society that gay couples will raise children in a similar fashion to straight couples?”

Ryan Haecker, recent information studies graduate and founder of UT’s Anscombe Society chapter, which aims to protect the ideals of heterosexual marriage on campus, said he found Regnerus’ criticism of the “no differences” paradigm to be the most significant aspect of the study. According to the study, the “no differences” paradigm suggests children of same-sex couples display “no notable disadvantages” to those raised by heterosexual married couples.

“Often, defenders of alternative sexual lifestyles and familial forms will use such research, either overtly or covertly, to silence and dismiss with, rather than to engage with moral criticisms,” Haecker said, referring to those who use the paradigm to suggest that children raised by same-sex couples are the same as all other children. “The policy of not discussing the moral criticisms of same-sex erotic relationships is presently observed among proponents of same-sex lifestyles.”

Haecker said proponents of a more traditional family structure, particularly in a religious context, are often overlooked as recent research continues to support the “no differences” paradigm.

“We have observed how the scholarly discourse regarding same-sex parenting and ‘marriage’ has shifted dramatically in the past decade,” Haecker said. “If this secularizing trend should continue, we may expect sociological and legal discourse to more and more exclude, dismiss and silence moral criticisms of alternative familial forms.”

Despite the study, Bayer said it’s up to parents to realize the importance of bringing up children in stable and loving families regardless of structure or orientation.

“It’s important to remember that love is love, and when we do things with intention and purpose, kids aren’t left out,” Bayer said. “Gay or straight, it doesn’t matter.”