The Story

In the summer of 2012, a well-respected university and sociology journal together handed the religious right a weapon in the marriage wars, dressed up as academic discourse.

On June 10, 2012, Social Science Research’s website went live with “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” written by University of Texas at Austin associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus, and “Same-sex parenting and children’s outcomes: A closer examination of the American psychological associations’ brief on lesbian and gay parenting,” written by Loren D. Marks, an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The intention of Marks’ research review was to slam the American Psychological Association’s position that same-sex parenting is not harmful to children and to take down 30 years of scientific research showing that having gay or lesbian parents does not predispose children for negative sociological outcomes. Marks blasted most of the 59 studies cited by the APA for involving small, convenience sampling (where subjects are selected by the researcher because they are close at hand or otherwise easy to access),  – among other criticisms. The problem with these studies, Marks argued, was that most of them were not large, random, or population-based.

The intention of Regnerus’ study – which was funded to the tune of nearly $800,000 by the conservative Witherspoon Institute and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation – was to present the large, random, population-based study that Marks lamented was missing from the academic literature on same-sex parenting. And to the delight of the religious right community, Regnerus claimed his study found negative outcomes for the children who said one of their parents engaged in a “same-sex romantic relationship” at some point during their childhoods.

Regnerus’ study was billed as a study of family structures, and it did compare the outcomes of children from some family structures, such as those involving intact biological parents, step parents, adoptive parents, and single parents. But the group that was the focus of the study – same-sex families – was not characterized by family structure, but by relationship behavior. Thus, children raised by two always-married biological parents were then compared to children raised in a family where a parent had a same-sex relationship, regardless of the family structure.

Using an outside research group, Regnerus screened more than 15,000 randomly sampled Americans. Of those, he surveyed about 3,000 young adults between the ages 18 and 39, asking how they fared among a series of social, emotional, behavioral, and economic outcomes, such as marital status, employment status, income level, criminal history, sexual orientation, suicidal tendencies, experience with sexual abuse, experience with drug and alcohol abuse, and overall happiness.

Only the respondents who said their biological parents did not remain married throughout their childhoods were asked if their mothers or fathers had ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If the respondent claimed his or her mother had a same-sex relationship, that mother was termed a “lesbian mother”; if the respondent said his or her father had a same-sex relationship, that father was termed a “gay father.”

In the end, Regnerus came up with 163 “lesbian mothers” and 73 “gay fathers.” However, he found only two cases in which the mom and her partner were together for 18 years. He only found six cases wherein the mom and her partner were together for 10 or more years, 18 cases where the mom and mom and her partner were together for five years. In the majority of the entire sample of “lesbian mothers,” respondents reported living with their mother and their mother’s partner for less than a year or never living with the mother’s partner. Within the “gay fathers” sample, respondents rarely reported living with their father for very long and never living with their father and father’s parent for more than three years.  

What bound these supposed products of same-sex families was instability, because regardless of how long they lived with their supposed gay parents, Regnerus threw them all in the same bucket with the common variable of having had a parent who had a same-sex relationship. He compared this bucket to another bucket of kids who grew up with the same mother and father for at least 18 years. That the latter group turned out to have fared better is not surprising considering they enjoyed a life of stability in comparison to the former.

Moreover, all of the young adults in the sample were born between 1971 and 1994, during a time when anti-LGBT animus was the societal norm. Not only was gay marriage illegal in every state, but gay sex was illegal in many states. Many of the “same-sex families” in Regnerus’ study likely resulted from dissolved unions formed by gay and lesbians trying to lead heterosexual lives.

The New Family Structures Study fell under intense scrutiny because of these methodical flaws and because it was financed by two conservative groups with ties to the major anti-marriage-equality movement. (Though Regnerus assured his readers and the press that the study’s funders had no hands in designing or producing the study, it would later be learned this was not the full truth.)

But more disturbing than the study’s misleading results is how the study has been grossly mischaracterized to push an anti-LGBT-rights agenda throughout the world. In same-sex marriage debates around state legislatures and in U.S. courts, lawmakers and social conservative groups have repeatedly misrepresented this study as research on same-sex couple parents compared to two biological parents

The way Regnerus laid out his findings were indeed misleading. Though he was careful to note in his original paper that  he studied children whose parents had a same-sex romantic relationship, rather than same-sex couple parents, at several points in the paper Regnerus referenced this group as “the children of same-sex parents,” which to the casual reader indicates two gay dads or two lesbian mothers. Furthermore, at the end of his paper, Regnerus concluded that it his study “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults – on multiple counts and across a variety of domains – when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”

Regnerus has declined to the call out anti-gay-marriage advocates for misinterpreting his research, with the exception of how his study has been used in Russia – where lawmakers have cited it to prohibit gay couples from adopting Russian orphans and to seize children from the gay parents.

And though Regnerus has maintained that his study was driven by data rather than ideology, he has since gone on to testify against same-sex marriage – using his study’s findings – in legislative hearings and in amicus briefs submitted in the federal same-sex marriage cases decided this summer.

Regnerus’ own professional body, the American Sociological Study, has denounced his study for its flaws and its misuse in former and ongoing same-sex-marriage cases.

The Witherspoon’s Plan

In 2010, conception for what would eventually be called the “New Family Structures Study,” was under way. At the time, University of Virginia associate sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, who had been a fellow with the Princeton, N.J.-based Witherspoon Institute since 2004, was the director of the Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, where the study was conceptualized. The Witherspoon’s tax-exempt form for 2010 noted that one of the biggest accomplishments of this program for that year was “the initiation of the New Family Structure Study.” 

Wilcox recruited several scholars to work on the project, including University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus, who was eventually chosen to be the study’s principal investigator, though he had no research background in LGBT family issues.

Wilcox later worked on as a paid consultant on the study – and evidence indicates he likely peer-reviewed the resulting paper in Social Science Research. Thus, Regnerus’ and Witherspoon’s repeated assertions that the study’s funders were not directly involved in the design and implementation of the New Family Structures Study are patently false.

We know now that the study’s funders financed this project with a specific goal in mind: to produce evidence that could be used to argue against same-sex marriage, particularly with the anticipation that the U.S. Supreme Court would eventually hear cases involving same-sex marriage. Records that were later obtained through public records requests through the University of Texas show that soon after Regnerus joined the New Family Structures Study team, Witherspoon President Luis E. Tellez told Regnerus that he wanted the study to be done rather quickly so that the results could be published before the Supreme Court had a chance to rule on same-sex marriage.

“Naturally we would like to move along as expeditiously as possible but experience suggests we ought not to get hung up with deadlines, do what is right and best, move on it, don’t dilly dolly, etc.,” Tellez wrote in a Sept. 22, 2010, email. “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well. I would like you to take ownership and think of how would you want it done, rather than someone like me dictating parameters but of course, here to help.”

In a fundraising letter dated April 5, 2011, to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which ended up granting $90,000 to the New Family Structures Study, Tellez noted the urgency of getting the study published.

“It is essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society,” Tellez wrote. “That is what the NFSS is designed to do. Our first goal is to seek the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.”

Tellez’s wish was granted. Regnerus’ paper was published in a well-respected sociology journal in June 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up two legal cases involving same-sex-marriage only in December 2012. Starting the day after Regnerus’ study was published on through when the court heard oral arguments in March 2013, conservative groups pushed out amicus briefs citing Regnerus’ study in arguments to ban same-sex marriage and to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act – which at the time denied federal marriage benefits to legally married gay and lesbian couples.

In the end, the Supreme Court struck down the section of the DOMA that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage and dismissed an appeal over California’s same-sex marriage ban (effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in the state). And the high court did not consider citations of the New Family Structures Study in its written argument, though Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia briefly alluded to “considerable disagreement among … sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a -- in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not” during oral arguments in the California case.

And yet, the damage caused by Regnerus’ flawed, misleading study carries on. To read more about the negative impacts Regnerus’ study has had on the LGBT community worldwide, click here.

The road to Mark Regnerus’ paper began years earlier, when religious right intellectuals began plotting how to use academic research to make a legal case against same- sex marriage. Academic research was needed because it was becoming increasingly difficult to make non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage that an average judge would buy.

It was a series of meetings among social-conservative scholars that led to the publication of an influential short book titled, Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, published in 2008 by the Witherspoon Institute and signed by and many of the leaders of the movement to fight same-sex marriage in America, including Robert P. George, who co-founded the Witherspoon Institute and National Organization for Marriage, and Jennifer Roback Morse, who founded NOM’s Ruth Institute. On the issue of same-sex marriage, the Ten Principles predicted that future academic research would show that “children reared by same-sex parents will experience greater difficulties with their identity, sexuality, attachments to kin, and marital prospects as adults, among other things.” But at the time there was no legitimate scientific research proving this point.

The Witherspoon Institute attempted to prove this hypothesis in the study it financed a few years later, and though Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study did not really study children raised by intact same-sex couple parents, Witherspoon and its allies have promoted the study as if that were the case.

Before Regnerus study was published, it was the Ten Principles that was frequently cited in court cases and legislative hearings to oppose same-sex marriage. But the claims against same-sex marriage in this old Witherspoon book were not based on scientific fact; whereas, Regnerus’ paper is billed as legitimate scientific research and is thus a more powerful tool.

Compromised Peer Review

Questions remain as to how and why such a flawed study was published in a respected sociology journal at breakneck pace, but we do have some answers.

Regnerus submitted his study for review in February 2012. He told the Social Science Research Editor James D. Wright he was looking for a speedy review in order to beat a report from the funders detailing the study’s results. At Wright’s request, Regnerus submitted a list of potential reviewers, which is commonplace at many sociology journals. Wright, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, then went to scholars and asked for a two- to three-week turnaround, which is largely unheard of in the world of scholarly peer review; because scholars are often university professors or have busy schedules, they are given several months to review the paper. Wright secured the reviews that came in quickly and the paper was accepted for publication within six weeks, published just a few months later. The other articles published in that same issue of Social Science Research were submitted, on average, at least a year before.

But it turns out that two out of the three peer reviewers who green-lighted the paper for publication were connected to the study.

Internal emails and documents obtained through public records requests show that even before Regnerus completed the research, the Witherspoon Institute was angling to make the research public. Regnerus therefore sought to protect himself and “limit criticism (at least a little bit)” by having the study peer-reviewed and published first. Just after Regnerus submitted his paper for review, he reached out to Pennsylvania State University sociology professor Paul Amato and informed him he put his name on a list of reviewer candidates. Regnerus encouraged Amato to accept, offering a few words of flattery.

“I’d hope that if you’re asked to review it you would consider doing so,” Regnerus emailed. “I think you’re one of the fairest, level-headed scholars out there in this domain.”

Financial records show the University of Texas paid Amato about $3,000 for early consulting work. Amato has said publicly that he divulged to Wright his association with Regnerus and his work on the study but told Wright it would not prevent him from judging the study fairly. He has since criticized the misuse of the study’s results to oppose LGBT rights.

Amato was not the only peer reviewer with a potential conflict to review and approve Regnerus’ paper.

Southern Illinois University sociology department chair Darren Sherkat, who sits on the journal’s editorial advisory board and led an internal audit into the peer review of Regnerus’ paper, filed a public-records request with the University of Texas in order to figure out which paid consultants had also been reviewers. A request of his request revealed invoices for consultant fees for two paid consultants: Amato and University of Virginia sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, who played myriad roles on the project and whose undisclosed ties with the Witherspoon Foundation contradicted assurances from Regnerus and Witherspoon that the study’s funders were not involved in design or implementation of the research. This summer Wright told Inside Higher Ed that he asked Wilcox to review the paper and, despite his stated involvement as a paid consultant, he was “asked to proceed.”

Records also show that Wilcox, who also sits on Social Science Research’s editorial advisory board, had the idea to pitch Regnerus’ paper to Wright because he was a friend of the late Steven Nock, a sociologist out of the University of Virginia, who testified against legalizing same-sex marriage in Canada in 2001. In his written testimony, Nock criticized the standing, mostly favorable, research on same-sex marriage. He described it as fatally flawed because most of the studies used small, convenience sampling, rather than a large national random sample study measuring the outcomes of the children of gay couple parents – which is what the New Family Structures Study had claimed to be.

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