Are Gay Couples Worse at Parenting?


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There is little doubt that the treatment of the LGBT community is one of the largest civil rights movements in our culture today. Frank discussions are being had across the world about what kind of marriage and adoption rights gay and lesbian couples should have. One of the leading arguments against these rights is some variation of the "think of the children!" argument. And with such monumental court cases and legislation taking place so rapidly these days, that argument is worth critically examining. If scientists and sociologists can find that holding all else constant, children of gay couples are somehow "worse off" than children of heterosexual couples, we would be foolish to place children in harms way. However, if the null hypothesis (there is no difference) holds true, anti-equality activists don't have scientifically-backed leg to stand on. Let's look at the data:


Benjamin Seigel, a professor at Boston University's School of Medicine, notes that there has not been a "Holy Grail" study done on the subject - a randomized, controlled trial. The difficulty behind this is fairly obvious; it would be unethical to randomly tell sets of parents which children they were "allowed" to adopt. An additional complication would be the inability to make the study "blind", the children would always know whether or not they were raised by a gay couple. However, Dr. Seigel claims that "we're never going to get the perfect science, but what you have right now is good-enough science. The data we have right now are good enough to know what's good for kids".


The major basis for his position is The National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study. Now 27 years old, the study follows the life of 78 artificially inseminated children of lesbian couples. Among the findings of the study to this point have been:


  • The children of gay and lesbian parents are no more likely than their peers to identify as LGBT themselves.

  • In a confidential survey, none of the children reported being abused by their parents

  • The children, most recently interviewed at age 17, are relatively high-achieving in school, have close friends, and describe their parents as good role models.


In critically analyzing this study, I only had a few concerns. Dr. Nanette Gartrell, the lead researcher of the study, recruited participants in the study at women's bookstores and events in major cities. This could potentially skew the findings (is the parenting of a avid reading urban couple the same as a random couple in the backwoods of Montana?). This also shines a light on the potential for third variables, as we always discuss in class. For example, it is probably reasonable to think that these urban couples may be wealthier than the average American parents, which could lead to a better environment for the children. Also, their choice to artificially inseminate eliminates the risk of unintended pregnancy - a large amount of family planning and reflection had to go into the decision to raise a child (obviously not the case for every child of a heterosexual couple). Additionally, the responses themselves might be subject to an unconscious bias. Although the children know their responses are confidential, there is a risk that they could artificially raise the scores on the subjective parts of the study out of reluctance to make their parents or themselves look bad (how they assess their parents are role models, disclosing their sexual orientation, etc.). But all in all, the study seems to be about as comprehensive as possible and fails to reject the null hypothesis that orientation has no effect on parenting outcomes.


Dr. Seigel acknowledges that a few studies have suggested that children of LGBT couples are in fact negatively affected by their parents, but he believes those studies should be dismissed due to fallacies much like the ones we discuss in class.


An Australian study, "Children in three contexts: family, education and social development", surveyed teachers about the performance of students in three categories of families - heterosexual married, heterosexual cohabiting, and gay/lesbian cohabiting. The study found mixed results, with the children of gay couples faring worse than their classmates in a few categories. However, Dr. Seigel has a few issues with the findings.


  • First of all, gay marriage was not legal in Australia at the time, so based on the definition of the research, all gay and lesbian couples were cohabiting. Marriage could potentially be an outside variable that contributes to the success of children, in which case the research would be making a strong argument in favor of legalizing gay marriage at the risk of harming the children of gay couples.

  • There is reason to believe that gay families were stigmatized at the time of the research. This could act as a third variable, negatively affecting school performance and setting the students up for failure.

  • The majority of children in gay households were placed in the family after a recent divorce. That instability and stress from their family history could be the driving force behind negative performance, rather than their parents' sexual orientation.


One final, and particularly troubling, study is the Regnerus Study. The paper by a University of Texas sociology professor found that children of gay couples we're destined for a lifetime of negative outcomes, including welfare, unemployment, and even sexual abuse. However, the real shocker in this paper is its apparent disregard for ethical methodology.


  • The study sampled based on convenience rather than a random, representative pool the findings seem to suggest.

  • The data is questionable - some respondents claimed to have literally hundreds of sexual partners in the previous week.

  • Rather than ask for demographic data on whether their parents were in a gay relationship, the study asked whether the respondents' thought their parents had had sex, or been in a relationship with a member of the same sex.

  • Regnerus grouped children of same-sex couples and those whose parents had suffered from a same-sex affair together.

  • The entire study only contained two children of a same sex couple - nowhere near the amount that would be needed to support the claims the study makes for the whole LGBT community.


The study was heavily criticized by the social sciences community and many researchers questioned Regnerus' motivation in publishing the paper. One researcher quipped, " He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better. Some of them think that he's also stupid and an ideologue. I know better. I know that he's a smart guy and that he did this on purpose, and that it was bad, and that it was substandard." The paper has sparked a debate on the role of religion (Regnerus is an Evangelical Christian) and politics (he also appears at events with prominent anti-equality activists across America) in research, believing that his objectivity was compromised in an attempt to influence this summer's DOMA and Proposition 8 Supreme Court cases.


But back to gay parenting - I am inclined to agree with Dr. Seigel. Although none of the current research is ideal, the stronger studies appear to support the null hypothesis. Although there is nothing to say "gayness" makes parents any better than their peers, there doesn't appear to be any reason to believe the opposite is true either.


Discussion: Do you know any studies to the contrary? Should we be concerned about bias in research done by strongly political or religious researchers?

2 Comments

It looks to me like the Regnerus Study was biased. The results do sound skewed. I agree with you on which study you believe is accurate. I have not found any study to the contrary (just a lot of zealous religious items) but I have found much in the way of support.

http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/parenting.aspx?item=1

I find this to be a very well done blog post by showing studies with varying results. I could see one thing lacking from the first study is the fact that the kids were only raised in lesbian households and not a combination of lesbian and gay male couples. I would have to agree with the ulterior motives the Regnerus study. This also goes back to religion needing to be kept out of science as this was definitely an influencing factor of the results of that study. I hope the Seigel study helps in the way of progressing equality

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