This summer, the country got to know Mark Regnerus’s name — but not in the way he had planned.
On June 10, the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research published a landmark study conducted by Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, which compared the life outcomes of people between the ages of 18 and 39 raised in a variety of household arrangements. The findings turned the conventional wisdom of the last decade upside down, revealing — among other things — that people whose parents had same-sex relationships suffered poorer life outcomes than those from intact biological families.
The media exploded, and the backlash against Regnerus — personally and professionally — was both swift and harsh. After a gay-activist blogger accused him of falsifying data in an attempt to hurt homosexuals, the university investigated him for professional misconduct; it found none, and cleared his name in August. The professor largely avoided the media as the saga unfolded, but took a few minutes to speak to CitizenLink this week about his experience — and what, if anything, he would have done differently.
CitizenLink: Some people have described your study as the “gold standard” for research on different types of families. What made it stand out?
Mark Regnerus: A few of the unique things of the New Family Structure Study is that it’s a nationally representative study. It’s large — we interviewed 248 people who said their mother or father had had a same-sex relationship. And we talked about a lot of outcomes. There have been a lot of studies that sort of focus on one outcome or a pair of outcomes, but we looked at 40 different things, both about their current life and their reflections on their growing-up years. Another unique aspect is that we talked to people who are out of the household, so they didn’t necessarily feel pressure to report more or less positive things about their families — they are now independent of their family of origin.
CL: Two hundred and forty-eight people out of how many? That doesn’t sound like a lot of people.
MR: We completed interviews with 3,000 people. And while 248 by itself isn’t a lot, you have to understand we’re talking about very, very few people in the first place. Finding someone whose parent had some sort of same-sex relationship as they were growing up is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I got taken to task for leaning on young adults’ assessments of their parents’ relationships. I didn’t ask them whether they thought their mom was a lesbian or if their dad was gay. Because, in part, self-identity is a different kind of thing than behavior, and lot of people weren’t “out” in that era. I think we can all think of moms and dads when we were growing up that we either knew or suspected were gay or lesbian, but never “came out of the closet,” so to speak. So, I didn’t want to make the assumption that these young adults would identify their parents as gay or lesbian, so I kept the focus on relationship behavior.
Those stably coupled mom-and-pop-relationships are not often a part of a lot of the previous studies (that include data on gay parents). So in the background of all this is kind of a recognition that we all know that mom-and-pop stably coupled households are good for kids. So a lot of comparisons in the past — when you talk about “no differences” (between children who grow up in same-sex households and children who grow up in heterosexual or single-parent households) have been between some degree of diminished family structure, whether it’s divorce or single parenthood. But in the public imagination, the discourse around this subject means there are no differences regardless of family structure. And when pushed, a lot of people who were critics of mine will say: “Yeah, we know that, obviously, family structure matters,” and then they’ll complain, “Why didn’t you find many stably coupled lesbians?” Well, they just were not that common in the nationally representative population. There were two cases where they said the mom and her partner lived together for 18 years. There was another several who lived together for 15 or 13 years. So, stability in the sense of long-term was not common. And frankly, it’s not all that common among heterosexual population. I take pains in the study to say this is not about saying gay or lesbian parents are inherently bad. It is not a study about parenting or parenthood, or parenting practices. I didn’t measure parenting practices.
We already know that about 70 percent of divorces are filed by women because they are less likely to stay in an emotionally unsatisfying relationship than men. Men are more likely to remain in emotionally unsatisfying relationships, but they are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners. That’s likely not because they’re gay, but just because they’re men! But when you compare that to the life outcomes reported by people raised in intact biological families or those whose parents were married until one of them died, the differences are stark.
CL: The journal that published your study is going to run a response from you in the near future to all your critics. If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently?
MR: I’d be more careful about the language I used to describe people whose parents had same-sex relationships. I said “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers,” when in fact, I don’t know about their sexual orientation; I do know about their same-sex relationship behavior. But as far as the findings themselves, I stand behind them. My only hope for the study going in was to let the data say what it was going to say. I knew I’d make some friends and some enemies with the study — I just didn’t know who they were going to be.
CL: What has changed for you since the study was published?
MR: I still get along with most of my colleagues. The ones who were friendly before are still pretty friendly, and the ones who weren’t are not. Some of them say to me, “You used to do such good work!” I guess they mean that when I’m criticizing people they disagree with, that I’m doing good work.
CL: It often seems that the academy is becoming very politicized on this issue, much like the mainstream media — if you don’t subscribe to a particular worldview, you are a heretic. Is there anything ordinary people can do to make a difference?
MR: I used to think that efforts to contact legislators and other decision-makers didn’t matter, but I now think it’s important and helpful for people to weigh in with their opinion.
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