Auditor Calls ‘Gay Parenting’ Study ‘Bullshit’

The much-maligned study of parenting by controversy-stoking sociologist Mark Regnerus, which has become both ammunition and target in political battles over marriage equality, is taking another hit. The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that an audit of the study and the way it was handled by the journal Social Science Research is highly critical of the study and the peer reviewers on which the journal editor relied.

According to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle article, audit author Darren Sherkat describes the Regnerus study as “bullshit,” which could serve as a concise summary of the conclusion of the study’s critics; including more than 200 researchers and scholars who signed a long open letter. (A much smaller group has defended Regnerus.)

Without getting too deeply into the weeds, the study, carried out with almost $700,000 from two right-wing institutions that oppose marriage by same-sex couples, has been lavishly embraced by religious right groups who argue that it confirms their fears that children raised by same-sex couples won’t turn out well. But the study did not compare adults raised by intact hetero couples with those raised by intact same-sex couples. Among the thousands of interviewees in the Regnerus study, only two were adults raised by a same-sex couple. Others he classified as having been raised by a gay mother or gay father if the adult reported that either parent had had a same-sex relationship at some point. Many have pointed out the glaring flaw in comparing children from intact families with children of divorced or otherwise split families.

Among those who have called “foul” is demographer Gary Gates, who turned down an invitation to help with the study because he saw its design as stacked from the beginning. “It’s like he took a group of men who never smoked and compared them with a group of women who smoked three packs a day,” he says. “Then he checked lung cancer rates. And he concluded that being a woman puts you at greater risk for lung cancer.”

Among the intriguing notions in Bartlett’s article is the idea that Social Science Research editor James Wright was caught up in the certainty that the article would be controversial and thus generate citations and downloads, a mark of a journal’s relevance. “Perhaps,” says Wright, “this prospect caused me to be inattentive to things I should have kept a keener eye on.”

Meanwhile, religious right groups, eager to grab any weapon that might support their political campaigns, continue to mis-characterize the study. In National Review, NOM’s Maggie Gallagher recognized that the study “doesn’t mean that gay parents are bad parents,” but she wrote that “major family scholars” affirm that it is “probably the best study we have to date on gay parenting.” Except that it is not a study of gay parenting. 

The Family Research Council this week called it a “sweeping study on same-sex parenting” and said it “outlines some negative outcomes of growing up in a homosexual household.” It isn’t and it doesn’t.

Oddly enough, FRC links to a Weekly Standard story in which Andrew Ferguson essentially accuses FRC of lying. While Ferguson’s article is meant to portray Regnerus as the victim of a lynch mob of leftist sociologists, it recognizes that religious right groups have not been telling the truth about the study. Ferguson quotes the FRC saying, “In a historic study of children raised by homosexual parents, sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Augstin has overturned the conventional academic wisdom that such children suffer no disadvantages when compared to children raised by their married mother and father.” Says Ferguson, “This is not only breathless but inaccurate.”

In addition to the audit commissioned by Social Science Research editor Wright, the University of Texas has launched its own investigation into the integrity of the study. But politically, the integrity of the study may be beside the point. The Witherspoon Foundation and Bradley Foundation apparently wanted a weapon they could use to fight marriage equality and they got it. It’s a safe bet that the Regnerus study will be cited by religious right groups for years to come, the way they have over the past decade cited a horribly flawed study of “ex-gays” by Dr. Robert Spitzer—even after Spitzer apologized and recanted for his flawed work.

Peter Montgomery, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches, is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation where he was on staff for 15 years. Before that he was associate director of grassroots lobbying for Common Cause and wrote for Common Cause Magazine, an award-winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.