Focus On The Family?: The Same-Sex Parenting Study and Judging Ourselves By Their Standards

by: Jason Orne

Half an hour after reading about the so-called same-sex parenting study by Dr. Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas at Austin, I rage-ate half a bag of Doritos.

I went to my Facebook, screaming a status: “I am an academic activist! I won’t let this lie down.” My twitter feed began buzzing with tweets and blog posts from fellow sociologists and fellow longhorns raging against the study’s bad science, questionable funding, and overly speedy review.

Then, I let it lie down.

I didn’t back away from it entirely. I did write emails. I’ve followed the news about the story as more people have come forward to react. But I didn’t know quite how to respond.

Because the underlying argument on all sides seems that queer people are only good people if we are good parents.

As just about everyone on the internet has already shown, Regnerus’s study did not actually study same-sex parenting. Regnerus’s study design is almost manufactured to produce disparities. He compares children from two-parent always-married opposite-sex parents with a group composed of children from a variety of family structures, including divorced opposite-sex parents and single parents. If a child reported having a parent who had ever been in a same-sex relationship—and was willing to tell the researchers, of course—then they were placed into this constructed group.

Although I try to avoid ad hominem attacks—as Andrew Perrin at Scatterplot discusses—the research was supported by two large grants from conservative groups the Bradley Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute. All research is going to be biased by the author’s positionality and political beliefs. However, for me, the key is not looking if it was biased, but how it was biased.

Regnerus had a range of options for conclusions to the study. He found that these children had increase rates of substance abuse, crime, mental illness, and public assistance use. He could have argued that this was evidence that the children of people in same-sex relationships experience negative outcomes because of society’s discrimination and lack of resources to support these families. Instead, he constructs the opposite-sex nuclear family as the ideal type.

Unfortunately, many of his critics have taken this as an opportunity to trumpet gay marriage as the solution. They argue that family instability is the cause. If only the children he studied had been raised in loving gay-married homes. The two-parent family is the best family.

Frankly, this isn’t a surprising finding. Conservatives have been attacking single parents and divorce with research showing similar outcomes for the children of divorced parents and single parents for years.

I didn’t accept those terms then either. It’s wrong to say that family instability is the cause. Let’s shift this focus on the family to a focus on the type of society that let’s this happen to any families.

If you’re interested in the outcomes of children for crime, poverty, and mental illness instead of trying to design the perfect privileged family—condemning the vast majority of non-white non-middle-class non-suburban families that will not experience this—question the society that does not provide this support to all families. Rather than climbing on the gay marriage bus and saying that only privileged two-parent families are the only types of families that should exist, no matter the orientation, let’s point out that there are many families in this country that will produce similar outcomes for their kids because of our broken social system.

Question our school to prison pipeline. Question our lack of comprehensive healthcare. Our lack of immigration policy. Our lack of living wage work. Question the attacks on unions.

Most of all, let’s question why one needs to be good at raising kids to be a good person.

Heterosexual people that are bad parents raise children all of the time. My queer friends were raised by some of them. Heterosexual people that are bad parents still have civil rights.

Furthermore, if there’s one thing that I love about being queer, it’s my chosen family and the intentionality that comes with raising children (for someone with my set of privileges). Some of us plan on having kids, some of us have kids, some of us will be having someone else’s kids, some of us will be giving someone else kids. And some of us don’t plan on ever having kids.

That used to be okay—perhaps even expected—within queer communities. The marriage movement and pleas for acceptance in American society have relied on emphasizing that we are just like everyone else. We’re just as good at raising kids, buying a house, and moving to the suburbs as everyone else.

Queers have gotten one thing right. We aren’t like straight communities. Queers are family disruptions. We make things unstable just by our presence. We should value that and stop judging ourselves by their standards.

Jason Orne is a queer PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a condition he should recover from nicely with time. When he’s not on Facebook or playing geeky video games, he bikes around Chicago finding good black coffee. He’s been featured in places like the journal Sexualities and the magazine The Morning News. While he finishes his first book on interviewing, he’s started work on his next book on Chicago’s Boystown. He can be found at and blogs at Queer Metropolis.


2 responses to “Focus On The Family?: The Same-Sex Parenting Study and Judging Ourselves By Their Standards

  1. Pingback: To Be and To Have: Reflections on Getting Gay Married « In Our Words·

  2. Pingback: Tuesday Teasers: Stuff I’ve Been Reading #12 - The Pursuit of Harpyness·

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