Study: Negative Findings for Children of Gay Parents Don’t Hold up to Scrutiny

A new study co-authored by UConn sociologist Simon Cheng says a widely cited study arguing that same-sex parents do not make good parents is seriously flawed in its methodology and findings.

The 2012 study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, “New Family Structures Study,” was originally published in the journal Social Science Research, which this month also published the study “Measurement, methods, and divergent patterns: Reassessing the efforts of same-sex parents” by Cheng, associate professor of sociology at UConn, and Brian Powell, chair of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The original study has been used by opponents of same-sex marriage as evidence to support legal arguments showing harm to the children of lesbian and gay parents. Regnerus concluded that adult children raised by gay or lesbian parents reported negative social, emotional, and relational outcomes compared to those raised in “intact biological families.” Reaction to the study was significant, because it was based on a large, random sample of subjects and its findings conflicted with those from previous studies.

“The conclusions from this article were so different from everything else published before. We began to hear criticism,” Cheng says. “When we looked at the article, there were things that struck us that didn’t seem right. We would stay away from the ideological arguments people were making. We wanted to speak from the evidence. We got the data from Regnerus.”

Says Powell, “We believe in science. We believe that the best way to judge a study – especially one as controversial as the study on same-sex parents – is to reanalyze the data. Our reanalysis leads us to seriously question the original conclusions” of the earlier study.

Cheng and Powell re-analyzed Regnerus’s research methodology and reached a different conclusion, describing errors or questionable decisions in the way data were coded or classified in the initial paper. Those misclassifications, they show, resulted in findings that don’t meet the standards of rigor that should be expected from social-science research.

Among their findings:

  • Of the 236 subjects that Regnerus identified as having been raised by a lesbian mother or gay father, 24 reported they had never actually lived with that parent.
  • Another 34 said they lived with a lesbian mother or gay father for less than a year. “In other words,” Powell and Chen write, “approximately one-fourth of the young adults allegedly raised by a same-sex parent reported either never living with the parent or living for a year or less.”
  • The sample included subjects whose responses were “at best inconsistent and illogical,” such as a respondent who reported having always lived alone but also having always lived with a mother, father and two grandparents.

The most blatant example of a response that should have been rejected but was not, they said, was from “a 25-year-old man who reports that his father had a romantic relationship with another man, but also reports that he (the respondent) was 7-feet 8-inches tall, weighed 88 pounds, was married eight times, and had eight children.” Another respondent claimed to have been arrested at age 1.

In all, Powell and Cheng say at least a third and possibly over two-fifths of the 236 subjects in the sample were miscounted by Regnerus as having been raised by a gay or lesbian parent. Once those subjects are more accurately classified and other statistical mistakes in the analysis corrected, they say, differences are very small or non-existent between adult children who were raised by gay or lesbian parents and those who were raised by heterosexual parents.

Cheng says that as scholars who study family issues, he and Powell have a strong interest in reviewing new studies in that field of scholarship and that questionable research can harm the credibility of the scientific community. The Regnerus study had such strong implications for an issue of great interest to the public and the debate over marriage laws, he says, the researchers felt the need to come forward, noting that the numbers of states approving same-sex marriage laws has been growing.

“We have a concern for the public. We don’t want the public to be misled by mistakes in this study,” Cheng says. “Researchers have to step out of our shell and speak. We want the evidence to speak for itself.”

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