The Regnerus Study and Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships

Mark Regnerus conducted a study from data collected through the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), which is a large random sample (N = 2988) of American young adults ages 18-39. Regnerus examined the experiences of young adult children of parents who had been in a same-sex relationship (N = 175 raised by lesbian mothers; N = 73 raised by gay fathers) on some 40 outcome variables that dealt with emotional, social, and relational issues. He reported a number of statistically significant differences between these children when he compared them to intact, heterosexually-married biological parents.

The study is getting a lot of attention from both “sides” in the larger cultural discussions about same-sex marriage and parenting. Even the American Psychological Association (APA) has recently weighed in with an official press release in apparent response to the attention being given to the Regnerus study. (One wonders where the organization was when poorly-designed studies were being published that appeared to support what is now being touted as the “prevailing” view.)

The most frequently-cited criticism of the Regnerus study is that the researcher created various family forms (such as adult children who indicated that their mother had been in a same-sex relationship) to then compare them to intact, heterosexual, biological parents. These other family forms appear to reflect what others have referred to as mixed-orientation marriages or marriages in which one person is heterosexual and the other person is a sexual minority by virtue of attraction to the same sex (which, understandably, also has its own definitional limitations). So is this a reasonable way to represent the kinds of same-sex parents we have seen in other studies? Then: Is it a fair comparison to intact, heterosexual, biological parents?

As you can imagine, folks are lining up on both sides of that question. Those who say it is reasonable and fair are touting the differences on 25 of the 40 outcomes for children of women who had a same-sex relationship (e.g., lower levels of happiness; greater likelihood of being unfaithful in marriage or cohabitation) and 11 of 40 outcomes for children of men who had same-sex relationships, while those who say it is neither reasonable nor fair are attempting to dismiss the study as utterly irrelevant. (I haven’t seen a critic of the Regnerus study who demonstrated how common these ideal same-sex relationships and families are.) In any case, as so often happens, the truth lies somewhere in between.

It is not a meaningless study. Some of the differences noted may well be due to the dissolution of the relationship, but that does not appear to explain all of the findings. And, of course, it would be better to have intact, same-sex relationship to make comparisons, but that is the great social experiment, isn’t it? So to answer questions about various family forms (not to mention the nature and scope of social support for various family forms), it may take investigating related family forms to approximate an answer. Before you write to say that these other family forms are not related family forms at all, please note that it has been estimated that having been in a mixed orientation marriage or relationship is not unheard of. Indeed, 42% of gay and bisexual men in one study reported having been in a heterosexual marriage (yes, from a convenience sample), and an estimated 2 million sexual minorities have been in (or are in) a mixed orientation marriage.

So some folks with a vested interest can (and will) dismiss the study and rely instead on research that supports their own biases (research with much smaller and nearly hand-picked/optimal samples, unrepresentative samples, and so on). Others will make too much of the study. Neither response is particularly wise in my view. Rather, we do well to understand this study within the scope of its strengths and its limitations. We do well to conduct additional, well-designed studies that capitalize on the strengths of this study while addressing the study’s limitations–all of this is toward the end that such studies inform how we respond in the best interest of families and children, as well as the nature and scope of social support.

20 thoughts on “The Regnerus Study and Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships

  1. NOM’s Robert George funded Regnerus’s study to the tune of $750,000. Regnerus’s hit-and-run anti-gay political propaganda was published simultaneously with the work of another faith-based gay-basher, Loren Marks. Note that the editor of the journal that published these two blatantly anti-gay political studies, James Wright, has written favorably about “Covenant Marriage.” In one study Wright did, he wrote about “the threat of gay marriage as a potentially destructive influence on the institution of marriage.” Wright is refusing to tell me who peer-reviewed the Regnerus and Marks anti-gay studies he published. His publications’ website admits that he sometimes allows study authors to recommend the “referees” of their own studies. It just cannot be a coincidence that a religious gay-basher, Robert George, paid $750,000 to another religious gay-basher to carry out a gay-bashing study, simultaneously published with the work of another faith-based gay basher, by a publisher who has previously exhibited anti-gay bias in his writings, and that then, the bigot who funded at least one of the studies goes running all over the place promoting the anti-gay results of the studies. Note additionally that the LDS Church’s Deseret News has been involved in breathless promotion of Regenerus’s anti-gay junk. Not only does Deseret News not mention that Robert George funded the study; they don’t mention that Robert George also is on the Deseret News editorial board.

  2. Thanks for that information, Scott. I don’t think attacking the funding source and news outlets is the best strategy for responding to the study itself. There are plenty of studies that would have to be axed if critics of this study were to develop that as a standard. If it was not peer-reviewed, I would be concerned about that. But, as you indicated, it was peer reviewed (and it is not common practice to share the identities of those who provided peer review).

    You did not say that this study author suggested his own reviewers, but you indicated that the journal sometimes allows an author to recommend reviewers. Having served on several editorial boards and been guest editor of several special issues, I’ve not seen typically seen journals ask authors for suggestions for peer review, but if the journal does that for other studies, then I’d want to know under what circumstances, such as when the editorial board does not have subject matter experts.

    • It is simply unbelievable, that you are told that the funder of the study, the researcher, and the journal editor all have a gay-bashing theocratic point of view, and still, you lecture me about how the study is not to be criticized. James Wright is not telling who reviewed this study, and the other gay-bashing study that he as an editor chose to include in this same issue of his publication. The funder wanted a specific propaganda weapon in an election year; sorry if you don’t understand that this is unethical research.

  3. “42% of gay and bisexual men in one study reported having been in a heterosexual marriage (yes, from a convenience sample), and an estimated 2 million sexual minorities have been in (or are in) a mixed orientation marriage.”

    I am interested in this part of your comment. Can you kindly tell me the name of this study and where an when it was published?

    • I believe the 42% comes from Harry’s study published in the Journal of Homosexuality (1990 or so?); the 2 million estimate comes from Amity Buxton of the Straight Spouse Network.

      • I won’t take that 42% is very relevant then. Things have changed a lot in 22 years.

  4. Mark- Please take note of the e-mail message below. I had contacted Dr. Wright and asked who were the peer reviewers.

    The peer review process is “blind,” so I must keep the names of the reviewers confidential. I can tell you that all of them are esteemed full professors at major research universities with well-established credentials in family sociology.

    Jim Wright

    Department of Sociology

    University of Central Florida


  5. Mark, would you consider writing a review of the research? I think you can bring a perspective to the research that very few people can. I read your research and I think it was in there or else it was on Warren Throckmorton’s blog anyay I read somewhere about the Straight Spouse Network so I looked them up and stumbled upon their open forum. Did you ever read their forum Mark? OMG I have never read such stories of extreme extreme emotional pain in my life.

    I lurked there for quite a bit never intruding. I had nothing to contribute and it is wrong to intrude simply for intrusions sake, what could I tell them? I didn’t know anything about what they were going through, or for that matter have known anybody ever who tried to live contrary to their natural sexual orientation or who has wanted to change their sexual orientation. So I lurked. And OMG Mark what tragic tragic tragic stories. I still remember some of the stories I read and it truly pains me to remember them.

    It was after reading the Straight Spouse network that I walked away and thought, “This is a VERY bad idea.” The focus is always on the gay person trying to figure out how he can change “enough” to marry straight, that some people and especially religions push people to do. I looked at the straight spouses and saw the ramifications (or I would say the victims) of that, and said enough is enough. Stop the madness! Let the gays marry the gays and let the straights marry the straights. The harm to these straight spouses and the devastation to these children who then go through their parents divorce is tragic. [And if you are gay have such a deep religious faith that you cannot marry a gay then get some help with how to organize live your life to do that. Celibacy, or establishing deep romantic same sex relationships without sex, whatever, but anything but marrying straight]

    I think you could write about that aspect of it, the terrible statistics for these marriages and the fact that people really don’t ever change their sexual orientation. And how this devastates the children who experience this in their parents lives.

    I think you could offer a unique statistic to the research. Give the background on MOMs.

    • SGM-> “I looked at the straight spouses and saw the ramifications (or I would say the victims) of that, and said enough is enough. Stop the madness! Let the gays marry the gays and let the straights marry the straights. ”
      The sorrow you mention is not a valid argument for gay marriage. Rather, its an argument to correct the maladaptive and irresponsible behavior that causes the sorrow.

      The same principle applies if a straight spouse commits adultery. The sorrow caused by adultery is not an argument to create non-monogamous marriages to legitimize adultery. Rather, the sorrow that results from adultery means the behavior was morally wrong in the first place.

      A gay spouse has a moral responsibility and a duty to exercise moral self control so they cause hurt or embarrassment to spouse or child. Its equality at its best, because it the same basic principle society expects from the straight spouse to follow as well.

      • Typo Correction: A gay spouse has a moral responsibility and a duty to exercise moral self control [lest] they cause hurt or embarrassment to spouse or child. Its equality at its best, because it[s] the same basic principle society expects [] a straight spouse to follow as well.

  6. I haven’t read the open forum at SSN, but I may have had a similar experience to you after a talk I gave on mixed orientation marriages. A woman who had been in a mixed orientation marriage spoke to me through tears about how difficult it was for her (as the heterosexual spouse). It is a complicated issue. I know others who I believe are satisfied in them, so I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand. We are trying to study them to come to a better understanding of potentially key factors, such as relationship cohesion, forgiveness, sexual intimacy, and so on. What makes a marriage ‘work’ for two people varies so much from one relationship to another. What I do want to advocate for is greater transparency, so that people know what they are getting into and what they might expect.

  7. Here Mark read this Straight Spouse forum for an hour. This is where I got my education on the horrible ramifications for the straight spouses.
    I would not wish this pain on my worst enemy.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I spent about an hour reading several stories yesterday. Very moving accounts of difficult and strained relationships. I’m glad there is a forum for people to share and support one another. Thanks again.

    • I think there are worse things in the world than the internalized homophobia. Homophobia – this construct does not convince me, is artificial.

      Watch “The age of innocence”. Can you read the novel “Edith Wharton”? Not only gay men struggling with unwanted feelings.

      Sexual identity is not God. It is part of a larger whole. If the man was not able to function without sexual identity – or in opposition to – love would not be worth much. Because love is something more.

      John Paul II, Mother Teresa and many great personalities – also gay – spouses – are happy and fulfilled at the end of his life. In contrast to the lonely and embittered gays abandoned by their partners – look at the statistics.

      I dedicate to you a passage from “The Age of Innocence”:

      “We [children] will be safe, because in the past you [my father] given up on her [my mother] request of what you wanted.

      She [my wife] never asked about my love affair with the Countess Olensky.

      Someone guessed.

      He was thrilled that it was his wife.”

      It sounds better in original English.

      So this is a true tragedy when a man believes that love is part of sexual identity and not the other way around, that sexuality is a part of love and it must be subordinated to love.

    • Every father (also my father), who struggles with homosexual feelings and remain faithful and be liable to his family is a hero.

      Suffering, which you describe, arise because they believed that sexuality is over true love. They believed in the slogan “Be yourself choose Pepsi.”

      True authenticity lies deeper: at will – spirituality. Sensual and emotional level is labile.

  8. Me too Mark me too. I am so happy these people have that forum. After reading some of their stories I can easily see how this would literally become a lifesaver for them.

    For these straight spouses who would you talk to about his? There is probably nobody in their circle of friends or family who has a clue what that would be like to catch your husband/wife in a gay situation (they call it over there “TGT”, The Gay Thing). Thank God they have each other, and thankfully that forum is open because I really really learned a lot by reading their stories.

    I am grateful society is changing and hopefully people are choosing less and less Mixed Orientation Marriage, which they do in order to “blend” in. Maybe because I am straight, the stories from the Straight Spouses really make me feel sorry for them in a deep and profound way. I literally would not wish that pain on my worst enemy.

    Gays, please stop marrying straights, stay with your own kind. Everybody is better off and hopefully you will find happiness with someone you are honestly attracted to emotionally, romantically and sexually. To inflict this pain on a straight person because you have internalized homophobia is simply cruel.

    • I’m sure there are more happy gay married men to women than happy gay same sex relationships.
      If we include (Research should include):
      The third Sternberg’s phase: “commitment” – to which gay men do not come. (It is not about formal aspect).
      The measure of sexual satisfaction and social (relationships).
      The age of respondents.

  9. I think the question whether same sex couples should be allowed to have children via adoption unrelated children, surrogacy or IVF can be solved without all these studies because children have, just as adults do, a right to experience relationship diversity. Same-sex couples would intentionally be depriving their children of beautifuly loving and defining relationships with both a woman (mother) and a man (father). Children of 0-4 are (apart from love) primarily interested in what their senses perceive directly. That is diverse sounds (acoustic), colours / forms / movement patterns (visual), tactile sense, to a lesser degree sense of smell and taste. At this age there is no mental activity – its about enjoying “input” directly, discovering the basics of the world via senses, not thought or concept. And the world of children of this age consists primarily of their parents, because they prefer them to everything and everybody else. Perception of the parents is prefered over all other perceptions. What ever is learnt directly from them is learnt best.

    Its important to know that children recognize the difference between feminin and masculine very well from about 6 months of age. They evidently love the difference between their mum and dad and they love to interact with both as different expressions of the
    relationship with a parent.

    The gender specific characteristics of the parents are the most important source of perception for a young child – simply because these are what he percieves naturally and by necessity. Gender-specific differences between mum and dad are the 1. the first, 2. the most intensly experienced, 3. the most important kategorie of diversity a child of 0 – 4 can experience. And diversity is fundamentaly important: We hang nice pictures or multi-coulored objects over the cot and try to stimulate the childs senses – let him experience all sorts of diversity through his senses, but nothing is more important and interesting and defining for a child than what he percieves directly from his parents.
    Watch how much a toddler enjoys first listening to his mother sing to him then the male voice of his father sing? Ist excactly this kind of experience of diversity directly from his parents which makes his day.

    Same-sex parents cannot offer their children this advantage of diversity.

    Adults, whether homosexual or straight, rightly take it granted that they can have diverse relationships (friends, partner, family relations etc.) with both male and female persons as part of their freedom and children deserve the same freedom. Only if a child has a loving father and mother, can it have achance of not being intentionaly deprived of the freedom of experiencing relationship diversity in its youngest years from birth onwards regarding the most natural and necessary relationship children can have – namely that with a parent, who is nurturer, role model and friend all in one. I believe this is a matter of morality and basic human rights of children.

    Try this simple experiment:
    Make sure you only listen to music with male vocals. No Whitney, Morissette, Lennox, Bush and co.. Only Clapton, Presley, Daltry and co.

    For two weeks. Whether radio, mp3, hifi or live – no female singing.

    You will probably crave for the tender voice of a female singer after 2 weeks – simply because its acoustically different. And thats just acoustics and if you cut out female spoken word as well the deprivation would be even more apparent. Human beings love to and need to interact with and perceive both males and females on various levels regularly and freely as they desire. This applies especially to very young children. Same-sex parents cannot offer this fundamental form of diversity for these children, and in my opinion it would be wrong to intentionally deprive them of it.

  10. Franz, and yet we have Zach Wahls out of Iowa, don’t we? Eagle Scout Zach Wahls testifying before the Iowa State House defending his two mothers. The number 1 political video viewed on YouTube last year was the Zach Wahls video.

    Franz anyone who has had and raised children all feel that they are experts on raising children. Ah-ha this is a topic I know something about. I think it is natural to feel that way. BUT your logic and reasoning which does on it’s face seem quite logical, in fact does not bear out.

    Dr. Amato said when reviewing the Regnerus research said, “If same sex parents were devastating to children we would have known by now” I do understand that it is counter intuitive to think that a child does jsut fine with 2 moms or 2 dads. It IS counter intuitive. BUT if we can put our biases aside and look to the other side we find that actually the lesbains and gays are right.

    If you read Regnerus’ personal blog he talks about only one other large random study that studied this. It is Rosenfelt out of Stanford. Rosenfelt used the 2000 US census which directly asked people the adults if they were same sex coupled. At that time no State had legal same sex marriage. Rosenflt looked at the ages of the children, and what grade they were in. Basically he was looking for kids who had flunked, who were older for their grade in school than they should be.

    Rosenfelt did what Regnerus doesn’t do, and he directly compared –
    -The Children being raised in a cohabiting Lesbian family.
    -The Children being raised in a cohabiting gay (2 men) family.
    -The Children being raised in a cohabiting heterosexual family.

    And guess what? The children raised by cohabiting gays and lesbians did BETTER than the children being raised by cohabiting heterosexuals.

    Click to access Rosenfeld_Nontraditional_Families_Demography.pdf

    I think the gays are right, the sexual orientation of your parents doesn’t matter if you are raised in a stable, low conflict, loving home. You will turn out okay. I give you Zach Wahls.

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