Portrait of a happy family
Happy parents ... Actor Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka.
On Sunday, Sydney Catholics and Anglicans took to the pulpit to warn parishioners about the dangers of gay marriage, in anticipation of this week’s parliamentary debates over two private members bills which, if passed, would legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.
Their supporters might find affirmation in a study published in the United States last week, which found that the adult children of gay fathers and lesbian mothers had inferior economic, education, social and psychological outcomes than children who were raised in “intact biological families”.
Conducted by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus and funded by the conservative Witherspoon Institute, the New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is unadulterated media catnip, flying in the face of other recent research into same-sex families which have found that gay couples parent just as well – if not better – than their heterosexual counterparts.
Burtka and twins Harper Grace and Gideon Scott.
At first glance, the research looks solid. Regnerus’s team coded responses from almost 3000 people (including 248 who grew up with a gay father or lesbian mother), covering an economically, racially and geographically representative cross-section of the US population. Their sample was randomly generated, rather than relying on volunteers who might have an interest in producing certain positive or negative results. And while many smaller, qualitative studies have relied on self-reporting by parents, the NFSS draws its data from their children – and a point in their lives where they have little fear of parental reprisal (everyone surveyed was aged between 18 and 39 in 2011).
There’s just one problem – and unfortunately for the New Family Structures Study, it’s a rather important one.
The study gives us plenty of data about the experiences of people who grew up with a gay parent in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but it tells us almost nothing about the experiences of people who grew up in same sex families. Like I said, the distinction is an important one, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache with their daughter Alexandra.
Spend enough time trawling the internet, and it can feel like everyone is an amateur research critic these days. That study “only” interviewed 80 people, for three hours a piece? Sample size too small! Interview subjects were volunteers? Biased! Telephone survey of 10,000? What about the other 22.32 million people in Australia? Huh? Huh?
What these criticisms tend to miss is that none of these studies are purporting to tell the whole truth. (Although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the way we journalists often write about them. It’s science, man!) I prefer to think of them as pieces in a puzzle, each one revealing an imperfect slice of a bigger knowledge picture.
And when you’re figuring out which slice of that knowledge picture a given study is uncovering, it pays to take note not just of their research methods, but of what questions are being asked or answered in the first place.
When it comes to what the New Family Structures Study and what can tell us about the experiences of children raised by same-sex couples, the problems are two-fold. The first is that the families being investigated aren’t exactly new. All the “children” interviewed were born between 1971 and 1993: an era in which starting a family wasn’t an option for most same-sex couples, and in which homophobia and discrimination were more acute than they are today.
The second problem, which follows from the first, is that the majority of “gay families” surveyed didn’t actually grow up in families with two mums or two dads. They were born to traditional mum and pop families who later split up and repartnered, whether temporarily or permanently – one parent to someone of the same sex.
What’s more, the “straight families” they’re being compared to aren’t exactly representative of the broader heterosexual population either. While the NFSS looks at families of all types, its “ideal” family is the aforementioned “intact biological family”.
In other words, Regnerus isn’t comparing same-sex parents to heterosexual ones, he’s comparing what are largely broken gay families to an ideal fewer and fewer families of any sexual orientation are living up to: two parents of the opposite sex who stay together til death do they part.
Responding to these criticisms, Regnerus has argued that the types of families studied by the NFSS, are statistically far more common than the “planned” same-sex families usually discussed in similar studies. That may well be true, but it also seriously dilutes the significance of the NFSS research as a rebuttal to those studies… or as a rebuttal to same-sex marriage.
After all, if you believe – as Regnerus, Pell and Jensen do – that the best relationship in which to raise a child is a stable, consistent one between two people who love and respect one another, isn’t it only logical to extend the institution that (theoretically, at least) provides that stability to the greatest number of people possible?