Two family studies researchers have been lionized by defenders of heterosexual, two-parent families, and demonized by proponents of same-sex marriage in recent years. Their studies showing poor outcomes for children of parents in same-sex relationships compared to intact, two-biological parent families have been touted as proof that it is important for the well-being of our society to resist the approval of same-sex marriage, and roundly criticized as bad science with an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. I do care about understanding as best as possible what is good for people and good for public policy, so if numbers tell me that it’s really bad for children to be raised by same-sex parents, then I hope I care enough about children’s rights to stand up for public policy against same-sex parenting. To be honest, I didn’t expect the numbers to show it, but when I was pointed to the work of one of these researchers, I thought I should look at it seriously. Then when I came across more work by this researcher, some articles by the second, and a big, U.S. census-based analysis by a third, I thought it was time to check my pro-gay marriage biases against the most data-driven of the anti-gay marriage arguments.

I’m not going to go into all of the possible criticisms of the various studies. They are easy to find through simple web searches, and many of them are accurate and merited. The two researchers, Mark Regnerus and D. Paul Sullins, are clearly influenced by conservative religious agendas. But I find reason to believe that they have mixed and temperate agendas. They both hold academic positions and respected institutions. They both clearly understand statistics and population study design. They both clearly care about families and the well-being of children, and they both care about sound science. These are my conclusions after reading a little bit of their scientific and more popular or personal writings. These two are not my enemies in working toward public policy that is good for children and adults of all sexual orientations. Yet I conclude that they have a few blind spots revealed by their own data and rhetoric, even if we were to concede that their statistical conclusions are completely sound.

General Observations

The studies by Regnerus and Sullins attempt to correct for some weakness in many of the studies same-sex parenting: most studies rely on convenience samples of parents who volunteer for the studies, often rely at least partially on reporting by the parents rather than by the children, and rarely include long-term, adult outcomes after the children are grown. These are all important considerations for public policy, since as a society we don’t want to base our general rules on a few exceptional cases. I do think their studies reveal some interesting things, and give us reason to consider changes in public policy and how we treat same-sex couples as nations and cultures, but not the changes (or status quo) that these studies have most often been used to defend.

The New Family Structures Study

I’ll start with one of the slightly older studies by Mark Regnerus. The full article titled “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 in 2012, can be accessed free through his personal website.

Regnerus did a massive, randomized survey collecting data regarding numerous measures of well-being for adults from all kinds of families. As most of us have grown up expecting, adopted children, children of step-families, children of divorced parents, and children of single parents are statistically less well off as adults by many measures. It really helps to be a child in an intact biological family. What apparently contradicted some other studies was the observation that children of lesbian mothers (and gay fathers) don’t fare as well as their peers. Regnerus apparently cares a lot about making sure this statistically observable difference is known, and that we don’t make far-reaching societal decisions based on the false belief that there are no differences between intact biological families and lesbian parented families. Almost no studies, including the large population studies I will link to, have included sufficient numbers of children of gay fathers to draw any statistically significant conclusions.

For a minute I’m going to ignore the fact that essentially all of Regnerus’s lesbian and gay families represent broken, heterosexual relationships, with at most a handful representing parenting relationships where the same sex parents were together for even just three years. Instead I’m going to recommend an exercise. Instead of comparing the children of lesbian mothers to intact biological families, compare them to all the other groups of familes—adoptive, divorced, step-, and single parents. You will quickly notice that there is not a single outcome for children of lesbian mothers that is worse than all of these other groups. In fact, there are only two where it is worse than most of the other groups: family-of-origin safety/security, and number of female sex partners (and in the second it is no different from those whose parents divorced after they were 18).

So based on the data from Regnerus’s survey (which essentially equates children of lesbian mothers with children from broken homes), lesbian mothers do only minimally worse than other parents who differ from the intact biological family reference. That should be reason enough to pause before claiming that lesbian moms aren’t as good for children as heterosexual moms. They seem about as good as divorced moms and single moms—even if you look mostly at lesbian moms with broken relationships.

Depressed Adult Children

Sullins, Donald Paul, Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression among Adults with Same-Sex Parents (April 19, 2016). Depression Research and Treatment 2016:Article ID 2410392, 8 pages http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/2410392

In the 2016 Sullins paper, a large study group was examined to find 20 adult children from homes with same-sex parents who were cohabiting at the time the child was 15. As best I can tell, that was the criterion for identifying these families, which is a vast improvement over Regnerus’s method, but still at least ambiguous as to whether they came from broken families or whole life intact lesbian relationships. Unlike Regnerus, Sullins doesn’t provide comparisons with other family types, since his primary concern seems to be to show that lesbian parenting has different outcomes from intact biological families. But here are some interesting quotes:

“Retrospective questions at Waves III and IV [ages in their 20s] asked about adult mistreatment during childhood, including whether a parent or caregiver had “slapped, hit or kicked you,” said “things that hurt your feelings or made you feel you were not wanted or loved,” or “touched you in a sexual way, forced you to touch him or her in a sexual way, or forced you to have sex relations.” Respondents reporting any physical, verbal, or sexual abuse at either Wave were coded positive for abuse victimization. Four-fifths (79%, 95% CI 77–80) of reported mistreatment was verbal abuse.”

This is a really disturbing number. Many more times the abuse experienced by children on average. Unfortunately, there appears to be no indication of what parent did the abusing or at what age. The abusive care-giver may well have been the biological father.

“The link between adult depression and reported childhood sexual, physical, or verbal abuse is well known [28, 29]. Recent studies have argued that verbal abuse may be more strongly related to negative internalization and the development of depression than physical or sexual abuse [30].”

I think this is an important observation because it illustrates some of the confounding factors in Sullins’s analysis. His sample of children was disproportionately abused as children, and they became depressed as adults. It raises important questions. Are lesbian moms more abusive than average parents? I highly doubt it. Are they more likely to have left an abusive heterosexual relationship before entering a homosexual relationship? It wouldn’t surprise me. I think it would be important to know who was doing the abusing.

Here’s another quote that bothered me:

“Compared to the general parent population, the same-sex parents were much more highly educated (66.2%, SE 15.6 had a college degree, versus 26.1%, SE 1.5 of parents overall) but had lower income ($36.5k, SE $6k versus $45.2k, SE $1.7k in 1995). These differences are consistent with prior studies of lesbian parents, which have found that, despite possible higher education, the combination of two female incomes and a higher proportion of household caregiving generally results in lower income [26, 27].”

Is lesbian parenting bad for kids, or is the fact that we pay women less than men bad for kids? I know where I’d put my money, since the data are totally unambiguous that economic opportunity helps children.

In this last quote, Sullins points out the single factor that explains most of the depression in his sample of children:

“Amato and Afifi found that an imbalance in current parental closeness, that is, being close to one parent but not the other, also lowered subjective well-being for adult children in their twenties [34]. In the present study, preliminary modeling on closeness to mother and father confirmed that the bulk of the variation in depression was related to whether the respondent had been (at Wave I) or was currently (at Wave IV) close to both parents or not.”

His subjects had been abused as children by a parent and weren’t close to both parents, and they became depressed. Hmm. That tells me something about parenting, but I’m not sure how much it says about same-sex parenting.

Emotional Problems among Children

Sullins, Donald Paul, Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition (January 25, 2015). British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science 7(2):99-120, 2015. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2500537 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2500537 

It’s a much larger sample size, and Sullins examines numerous factors that may influence the increased prevalence of emotional problems among children of same-sex couples. I’ll just pull out a few quotes and comment on this one.

“Currently, same-sex couples are about ten times more likely to adopt a child than are opposite-sex couples [64,65]”

Think for a moment. If these adopted children have worse outcomes than two biological parent children, but not different from other adopted children, gay marriage is responsible for poor outcomes?

“Same-sex partners are more similar to cohabiting families or to step-parent families than they are to intact married families in that they are not legally married or that at most one partner is the biological parent of the child. Research persistently has found that children in these alternate family forms suffer lower outcomes on most measures of well-being.”

Again, surprised?

Now to summarize some results. After controlling for moving houses a lot, bullying, and parental psychological distress, as well as comparing with cohabiting, step-, and single parent families, there is still a small risk factor for emotional problems in children being raised by same-sex parents. Adoption couldn’t be controlled for because there weren’t enough adopted children in the samples, although tentative analyses were included. Conclusion? There are differences for children who are raised by same-sex couples, and not all of them are good, so stop saying there are no differences.

Okay.

They are 13% more likely to have emotional problems than children of intact biological families, and a few percent more likely than children of single parents. Unless they happen to be children of same-sex parents who participated in the studies with convenience sampling. Then they do fine. And 13% more likely translates into what percentage total? Does it mean 11.3% of the children have emotional problems instead of 10%? Or even 33.9% instead of 30%? That may be a lot of children, but how much of a public policy crisis is it? There are clearly other, larger factors in emotional problems that the study already mentioned. And no one will argue against fostering family stability, eliminating bullying, or helping parents be psychologically well.

Then I don’t quite know what to do with the wording that says the increased likelihood of emotional problems is “biological”. If biology is the key factor, then how does that matter for public policy? Is it a matter of marriage or parenting abilities and opportunities, or simply a matter of who has biological children? Perhaps it’s an unfortunate word choice on the author’s part, and really means “biological child of a parent who, at the time of the study, was in a same-sex relationship.”

It’s probably hard to be a lesbian or gay parent. Let’s make it easier.

Here are some concluding thoughts. This is an important quote from the author of the fraudulent study reporting that chocolate helps you lose weight:

“If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.”

The Regnerus study looked at many measures of health and (if you went and looked at the data) showed not much difference between non-intact families with a lesbian or gay parent and other non-intact families. Sullins really only looked at one outcome—emotional and mental health. He found a small but significant difference not easily attributable to anything but having a lesbian biological mom or a gay biological dad cohabiting with a same-sex parent. I’m happy to accept that there are small increases in negative outcomes for children in minority family arrangements that are specific to that family arrangement. The question I ask myself is, what should society do about it?

You can probably guess, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Help stop stigma. Stigmatization and bullying are real public health problems no matter what the family structure looks like.
  • Help families stay together. This means supporting married couples of all kinds who are raising children. This means providing education and economic opportunity to everyone, since both of those help families stay together. It also means stopping stigmatizing different family types. It means being inclusive of different family types in our public activities, just like we try to be (but often fail) for single parents, poor parents, step-parents, etc. And it means providing different families with the same legal and social supports that help intact biological families stay together and function well.
  • Pay women equally. Some of the reason lesbian mothers do worse is because they have less money for the same education. How is continuing these policies and social structures good for children?

These are lessons I found in reading Regnerus and Sullins. It probably is harder to be a lesbian mom than a mom or dad in an intact biological family. We probably should do some things about that as a society. But telling them they can’t or shouldn’t marry and have children probably isn’t a helpful solution to our world’s mental health ills. There’s a good chance it’s counterproductive. Stigmatizing the children is certainly a bad idea.

Now if you are done digging through the strongest data-supported arguments I’ve seen against same-sex marriage and want to read something nice about same-sex parenting, here’s a big study done in Australia with some pleasant things to say about it.

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Jonathan lives in rural Georgia with his wife and three boys, teaching Chemistry and enjoying the good people of his community. He studied Molecular Biology at Brigham Young University, and Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jonathan is passionate about fatherhood, teaching and learning, Mormonism, and dance (he's much better at the first three), and dabbles in home repairs, various crafts, poetry, music, gardening, and Transhumanism. He has enjoyed many years working in Primary, with Young Adults and Ward Missions in various capacities. He currently enjoys serving in his ward and community however he is able. He posts on whatever interests him at the moment at http://jonathan.metacannon.net/

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