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Revenge of the Sociologists

The perils of politically incorrect academic research

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Witherspoon executives say they sought matching funds from liberal groups to guard against charges of ideological trimming, but the foundation ended up paying most of the study’s cost on its own—nearly $700,000, a kingly sum in the world of social science research. Though several liberal sociologists declined his invitation to participate, including the well-known UCLA demographer Gary Gates, Regnerus was able to recruit a range of scholars to serve as consultants and advisers, paid and unpaid, in the design and execution of the study. He brought a team together to help plan the study over a two-day period in January 2011.

“We wanted to have a spectrum from left and right,” he said, “and we accomplished that.” Witherspoon handed over the check and then backed off. The foundation, Regnerus says, had nothing to do with the study’s design or implementation, or with his interpretation of the findings.

“I told them at the beginning that I would just report the results, whatever they were,” he says. “I really didn’t know what we would find, and I’m surprised by what we did find.”

Regnerus hired the public polling firm Knowledge Networks to interview a random sample of 15,508 Americans. From these another sample of nearly 3,000 was taken of young adults born between 1972 and 1992. Roughly 60 percent of the respondents said they spent their entire childhoods with both their biological mother and father. The rest were identified according to the type of family they grew up in: single-parent, adoptive, “blended” or stepfamily, divorced. Another category comprised those who said that one of their parents had a same-sex relationship before the respondents were 18. The group was very small—175 said their mothers had been involved in a same-sex relationship, 73 said their fathers had. Still, it was large enough, according to Regnerus and his consultants, to yield to statistical manipulation. 

Only one large nationally based sample had been used before in gay parenting research. The Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfield looked at how the children of gay parents compared with their counterparts from straight families on one outcome: whether the kids performed at an “age-appropriate” level in school. Rosenfield found no difference between the two groups. Regnerus and his colleagues were more ambitious. They checked for 40 different long-term outcomes that would carry over to adulthood. Are you happy in your current romantic relationship? Are you on government assistance, or were you as a child? Any thoughts of suicide in the past 12 months? Respondents were asked to classify their sexual orientation, whether they’d ever been in therapy, whether they’d been convicted of a crime, and to list their income, educational level, and employment history. Several questions explored whether they had been bullied in school or sexually abused as children.

One basic finding immediately leapt out—how few Americans between the ages of 19 and 39 say their father or mother had ever had a same-sex relationship: 1.7 percent. It was also clear that the nature of gay parenting has changed quite a bit from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when these young adults were children. Typically, Regnerus said, they were born from heterosexual unions that went bust; nowadays the children of homosexual couples are often “planned”—brought into a family through adoption, in vitro fertilization, or surrogate motherhood. 

Regnerus found much to contradict the “no difference” view. On 25 of the 40 outcomes, young adults who said their mother had a lesbian relationship (he calls these respondents LMs) differed in a statistically significant way from young adults reared by their parents in intact biological families (IBFs). Among those whose fathers had a gay relationship (GFs), 11 outcomes were different from the IBFs.

And the differences were almost always negative for LMs and GFs. LMs in particular were far more likely to be on public assistance and to have received public assistance as children; to suffer depression; to be cohabiting; and to describe themselves as unhappy in their romantic relationships. Their income on average was lower, and so were their educational attainments. More of them were unemployed. And they were far more likely to report that they’d been abused by an adult as children. The differences between the GFs and the IBFs were smaller and less significant—there was no difference, for example, in reports of childhood sex abuse. And GFs were much more likely to have voted in the last election. In case you were wondering.

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