Thursday, May 14, 2015

Gay People Having Children: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

I've been thinking about whether to write about this. I'm trying to stick to my "no snark" principle, even if I do slip from time to time. And then I'm trying to decide if I want to get involved. But I guess I do.

A few days ago my son and I were discussing life, sociology, (I love sociology!) and other peoples' moral and political opinions. He said that one college friend of his, not someone I know at all, is against gay marriage because that person thinks it will have a negative impact on society--in particular, that the children raised by married gay parents will suffer. This is not my son's point of view, but we discussed it for a few minutes. I told my son I didn't know any statistics. Then, because my family loves information (and was never happier than when we learned we could access Google through our cell phones) I looked a few things up.

I learned the truth of Mark Twain's famous saying: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

The topic is all over the news right now because of a study published three years ago by a University of Texas sociologist named Mark Regnerus, and recently derided by another study in the same publication, which shows, or purports to show, that children raised by gay parents do worse on several life outcomes, including being married, contemplating suicide, and receiving public assistance, than children raised by straight parents.

It's worth being said at this point that all previous studies have shown that children raised by gay parents do the same or better on life outcomes than children raised by straight parents. It's also worth saying that nearly all of those studies have serious flaws. The truth is that there is only now a reasonable sample size, nationwide, of children being raised by married gay parents, and those children are mostly too young to have any "life outcomes" at all. Previous studies mostly followed small samples of upper-class white lesbian couples, which skews the statistics in the same way that comparing white, upper-class straight couples to black, lower-class straight couples might. So, there was no real definitive data before the Regnerus study.

Now, it turns out there are a ton of problems with the Regnerus study, too. In the first place, it was sponsored--to the tune of over $700,000--by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative organization opposed to gay marriage. This is sort of like Monsanto funding a study that proved that GMO-foods are just fine: the results might be true, but you'd have reason to be skeptical.

The Regnerus study surveyed 3,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 39. It started by asking them whether they'd been raised in intact biological families (birth mom and birth dad, married the entire time) or not. If not, it asked a series of questions which included whether or not either parent had had, at any time, a physical relationship with a member of the same sex. It went on to ask various life-outcome questions, as noted above. Some 1.7 % of the surveyed population reported having a parent who had a relationship with someone of the same gender. Regnerus referred to these parents as "lesbian mothers" and "gay fathers" regardless of the duration of that relationship, and regardless of whether the same-sex partner ever lived in the same home with the original parent and child.

But--this is the salient point--his study compared children whose parents stayed married to each other with children whose parents divorced and then had a same-sex relationship of some duration. This is, in the example given by one critic, like comparing lung cancer rates between men who never smoked and women who smoked two packs a day, and concluding that being a woman made you likely to get lung cancer.

There are other problems with the Regnerus study. According to the rebuttal paper (I could cite all this stuff, but that's tedious--it's all very easy to find via Google.) one-third of the respondents classified as having a gay parent actually never lived with that parent at all--for example, they were raised by a single mother and never lived with their father, who had a gay relationship. Other surveys were included in the statistics when they were clearly not completed honestly--one person reported that he'd been arrested at the age of one, and another that his father was 7'8" tall and weighed 78 pounds.

I used to think of myself as conservative, but it's getting harder for me to stay one. Whole websites right now are waving this study around as proof we should not legalize gay marriage. "Consider the children!" All the Regnerus study really shows is something sociologists have already shown, in study after study: that children do best when they are raised by two happily married parents.

Which, when you think about it, is an argument for gay marriage, not against it.