Revisit Regnerus

Travis Knoll

When I first learned about UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus’ “New Family Structure Study,” which declared that children of gay parents fare worse than those from “intact biological families,” I, as the son of a gay father, felt that my upbringing was under attack. It was hard to sympathize with Regnerus feeling a “chill” after releasing the study to much criticism, as my own community had felt the chill of prejudice for decades.

After writing a column in The Daily Texan criticizing the study, I ran into Regnerus on campus earlier this semester. I immediately introduced myself. He mentioned that he had read my remarks and that he had made several revisions and clarifications regarding his study. I accepted his offer to converse about it in more detail. Looking back, the straightforwardness of these conversations still surprises me, as does the fact that I am starting to sympathize with some of the difficulties he faces.

Despite my criticisms of the study, I agree with Regnerus that we need a more civil discourse regarding this polarizing issue. Particularly, I think that some of the reaction to his study was overstated. I have often heard assertions that his study attempts to undo 30 years of research or that he wishes to say that gays are bad parents. Some academics, like Darren E. Sherkat, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale are more frank, calling it “bullshit.” Comments like that cast aside too easily some of Regnerus’ more positive contributions, like the importance of stability in child-rearing. These positive questions cause me to see the study as a sort of Rorschach test, in which the subject looks at an inkblot and sees what he wants to see. The different actors interpret the data as they see fit, and, in the case of Regnerus’ study, progressives should reject its most extreme conclusions and wrestle with its legitimate questions regarding alleged defects in prior studies. Regnerus’ revisions to the study redefine the category in question as children who said their parents have had homosexual relationships instead of implying that they are self-identifying gays and lesbians. While I do not agree that his study is definitive — one study cannot by itself overturn the prevailing consensus overnight — Regnerus’ work raises important questions about the stability of gay relationships and provides an  alternative method to those that tend toward self-selecting upper-class gay families. When I asked him about his challenge to the academic consensus, he responded, “First, the social science here is pretty young. Second, the evidence about child outcomes among gay and lesbian parents has been limited by sample size, method variance, etc.” In a recent interview with Focus on the Family, a socially conservative Christian organization, Regnerus emphasized that he did not want to imply that “gay parents are inherently bad” and that his study did not examine “parenting methods.”

Despite the revisions, I still find parts of Regnerus’ study problematic. He decided to include his finding that there were significantly higher rates of sexual abuse in lesbian households than those of  “intact biological families” despite ambiguousness regarding whether the abuse occurred in the lesbian relationship or in a previous heterosexual marriage. Gray areas in research are not uncommon, but I still believe that it was imprudent to run the risk of publishing findings that could reinforce, on dubious grounds, the prejudice that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. Regnerus still asserts that he attempts to “follow the data,” that “data is not the enemy” and that one shouldn’t “avoid research questions just because you risk offending people,” and I still disagree with him. It is one thing to publish controversial numbers that are based on statistical realities, but it is quite another to publish numbers as “statistically significant” when their context is, in the author’s own words, “muddled.” In order to effectively contribute to the academic debate, Regnerus should have shown more caution and published only the most solid parts of his research.

However, I do not believe in academic censorship or in ostracizing academics for uncomfortable findings. No one can completely control how every study will be used, and gays do not need to be “not different.” Regnerus’ study deserves a more constructive reading to evaluate its place in the parenting debate.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.