How the response to Regnerus homogenized LGBT families

At the American Sociological Association meetings, Megan Carroll spoke on a panel entitled “When the Professional Becomes Political: Responding to the New Family Structures Survey.” Afterwards I invited her to revise her remarks for Family Inequality.


Guest post by Megan Carroll

Regnerus’s supporters have expressed disappointment that critics of the study have not been similarly outspoken about the methodological flaws of prior research on gay parenting. Regnerus’s study wasn’t perfect, they claim, but because he used a nationally representative sample, his data represents a (supposedly) valuable or even superior contribution to our knowledge of LGBT parents, compared to prior studies.

For reasons that have been well documented by Regnerus’s critics, I strongly disagree that Regnerus’s data offers valuable information about LGBT parents. But there is one key problem with prior research that sociologists should be talking about more, which is that the vast majority of what we know about LGBT parents is based on disproportionately white, affluent, two-parent family samples.

To be clear, the problem with these homogenous samples has very little to do with their ability to answer basic (and misguided) questions about the effect of sexual orientation on children’s well-being. However, scholars interested in social justice and family inequality should be concerned with how this research impacts LGBT families more broadly, as more diverse forms of gay and lesbian families have been left without a voice.

The non-academic progressive responses to the Regnerus study made especially clear how the body of literature on LGBT families can benefit from greater recognition of families at the margins. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for example, referred to Regnerus in a segment about the Supreme Court, which aired in March of 2013. In this segment, Jon Stewart maintains normative family hierarchies at the same time that he expresses support of same-sex families.

Justice Antonin Scalia said:


Stewart’s response:

There isn’t considerable disagreement as to the consequences. The American Academy of Pediatrics has studied it, and they say there’s no relationship between parents’ sexual orientation and children’s well-being. Whereas on the opposing side, there’s some fucking guy who put out a thoroughly discredited study. Or, as that’s known on the right, ”conclusive proof.“ And second of all, if the new standard for recognizing marriage is whether or not the couple would make good parents, you, Antonin Scalia, should get cable. Because it looks like, if I’m not mistaken, the consequences of heterosexual childrearing are pretty severe.

At this last punchline, logos from reality television shows about families such as “Teen Mom,” “16 and Pregnant,” “Dance Moms,” and “19 Kids and Counting” appear on the screen:


Jon Stewart’s larger point is important: we should not be basing policy decisions on family structure comparisons. But to make this point, he reinforces an established hierarchy between family forms. By using logos from TV shows about teen parents in particular, The Daily Show draws from a popular narrative that accomplishes two things: (1) it exacerbates social stigma against teen parents, thus contributing to the perception that they are unworthy of the resources that they may desperately need; and, (2) it defines same-sex parenting as something exclusive of teen parenting, as though gay or lesbian parents cannot be teen parents themselves.

By contrast, recent research suggests that a large number of same-sex parents had children when they were young and in heterosexual relationships. In fact, the national rate of same-sex parenting has actually been decreasing as gay youth have been coming out at earlier ages. Therefore, through its response to Regnerus’s influence on the Supreme Court, The Daily Show is neglecting the diversity within same-sex families and using the most privileged among them to define who gay parents are.

Another example of marginalizing family norms that emerged through the progressive, non-academic response to Regnerus came from a widely-distributed article in Slate by journalist William Saletan. Saletan argued that Regnerus’s findings represented evidence that gay families should be married in order to prevent the negative consequences associated with “instability”:

The methodology and findings, coupled with previous research, point to deeper differences that transcend orientation. Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home. If that’s good advice for straights, it’s good advice for gays, too.

Slate framed Saletan’s article as a progressive counterpoint to Regnerus’s summary of findings, but the notion that marriage provides stability and is therefore an imperative for gay families also resonates with growing support for same-sex marriage among social conservatives. In fact, Regnerus’s academic supporters also suggested an interpretation of the study that would favor marriage equality, possibly in an effort to deflect accusations of political bias:

We do not think that these new studies settle the nation’s ongoing debate about gay parenting, same-sex marriage, and the welfare of children … Indeed, it is possible to interpret Regnerus’s findings as evidence for the need for legalized gay marriage, in order to support the social stability of such relationships.

This narrative of same-sex marriage and family stability is what feminist legal scholar Reva Seigal calls “preservation through transformation” – when unjust social hierarchies are recycled and maintained by adapting to new social contexts. In this case, the demonization of single parents and unmarried parents is upheld through an ostentatious embrace of same-sex marriage, standing in for “family diversity.”

So why should we care about other family forms being thrown under the bus through the response to Regnerus? Why can’t we just focus on LGBT families, and hope for justice for other family forms to follow?

What those of us who are interested in family equality need to remember is that single parents, divorced parents, and teen parents are all LGBT families, too. And when we exclude them from the conversation, there are real consequences.

These consequences have been evident in my own research on gay parenting groups in California. Single gay fathers, for example, have talked to me about how a lack of representation among LGBT families has instilled a sense of ‘otherness’ for them in the emerging community of gay parents. As one single gay father said to me, “all of the publicity that you see is coupled dads. And there’s a great deal of us that are single dads. And I think I’m doing a great job! I get excited.”

At the same time that they are struggling to gain visibility, single gay fathers are also battling against the constraints of a society in which, as one single gay father put it, “every institution is designed around two-parent families. American society is not designed around parenting, as much as we like to talk about family values. It’s really much more about corporate and industry and work.”

Another single gay father simultaneously expressed the constrains of life as a single parent and advocated for attention towards single parents in the gay community, all through his choice of clothing while marching in the gay pride parade; his t-shirt simply read, “I’m a single parent. What’s your super power?”

I also met a gay dad through my research who had a child with his girlfriend at age 17. As a teen parent and a single parent, families like his have been dismissed and stigmatized throughout the response to Regnerus. But he has also taught me about how the prevailing gay parenthood ideal is classed and racialized as well. As he put it,

[The other gay dads] all have a home. They all are living, like, the ‘American Dream.’ And I’m like, fuckin’ living in a room and I’m in debt… And I feel like I’ll never get out. I feel like I’m stuck within the ‘ghetto.’ I’m stuck within the ‘gay’ [category], I’m stuck within the ‘teen dad’ [category], I’m stuck within the ‘Mexican’ [category]. I can’t rise above it.

Although it may seem like these stories of exclusion are disconnected from our research practices in sociology, the gay parents that I have observed are also surprisingly familiar with the literature on LGBT families. They’ve quoted it back to me; they’ve asked me if I’m familiar with people like Judith Stacey and Charlotte Patterson. They receive requests to participate in research all the time. And they’ve incorporated our academic literature into their own narratives of “who gay parents are.” But the gay parenting groups that I have observed are also composed of mostly white, wealthy, highly educated, and extremely visible gay fathers. Whether we realize it or not, scholarship does have a relationship to this community as it’s being formed, and we have been complicit in maintaining a very exclusive image of gay parenthood.

I recognize that the factors which have led to such homogenous samples in LGBT families research are not easy problems to fix. But we must insist on making more inclusive definitions of gay parenthood part of the conversation when responding to controversies like the Regnerus affair. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a demographic reality in which there are more cohabiting couples, single parents, and divorced families than ever. And they need support. They need resources for their children to thrive.

If we’re passionate about the Regnerus study because we see family diversity as an issue of justice and equality, our conversation cannot begin and end with gay families. It must be intersectional. It must be inclusive of family forms at the margins of society. Embracing the diversity within LGBT families must be a top priority.

Megan Carroll is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation research focuses on gay fatherhood and the politics of family change.

5 thoughts on “How the response to Regnerus homogenized LGBT families

  1. But it is Regnerus who put up the two party married norm, and then compared everyone else against that. Regnerus doesn’t matter because he never established that any parent was in fact gay or lesbian.

    Politically the fight is for Civil Marriage for Sexual Minorities. Any other relationships are not law issues. The Government recognizes a gay man who fathered or adopted a child, his father child relationship IS recognized in Every State. Yes agreed, we want to study in order to HELP children have better outcomes, the best possible, children of single parents for example. The reason so much research is on same sex COUPLE parenting I think is because THAT IS NOT legal in every State. In 27 States it is ILLEGAL for two women or two men to adopt a child, OR for a child born with fertility assistance, for the second parent to be also the legal parents. These are the rights we are fighting for, therefore the emphasis on TWO parent same sex couple parenting is very important.

    This is probably NOT the comment you want to see Ms.Carroll, but you have to think of the future of those gay fathers. The day they find a life partner and the circumstances are such that that single gay father of today wants to have his life partner of tomorrow adopt his child, as a legal co-parent, is the day everyone will be glad of these studies that do focus on same sex COUPLES parenting are the most numerous of oll the studies. Single gay parents already have all the same State’s rights as single straight parents. It is couples rights we are fighting for, and research that shows that there is no difference helps secure those rights.

    I do not disagree with you that all family structure are important to research but as for me, same sex couples parenting research has a more pressing need at the moment.


  2. Not to mention the demographic she is most worried about – children from prior heterosexual relationships – is an artifact of a prior generation of men and women living in the closet and then coming out. As we have seen in this generation, the closet is rapidly being replaced with reality – teens are coming out younger and younger. I hope we eventually get to a place where no one has to pretend to be straight and live a lie like so many of prior generations were forced to.

    I understand she has a soft spot in her heart for single gay dads and as a single gay man with no children I can empathize with the single part but I, like most gay people, intend to find a partner at some point in life. I don’t think we need to stigmatize single parents but in reality it is far easier financially when you have two people raising a child than one. There is nothing wrong with engaging in research that reflects that.

    If we had a decent welfare state like Northern Europe none of this would matter and outcomes of single families with be more in line with couples, married and non-married, but due to many factors, racism in particular, our political class will never let that happen. So, we make due with what we have.


  3. Perhpas including single gay people with children in studies on “families” might eventually show that marriage has certain benefits for all families…??? I guess I don’t see any reason to deliberately exclude single parents if you want to study families and it’s clear that one should include all economic, racial and ethnic demographics.
    But as Scott Rose points out above, the Regnerus study is nothing but crap “science”. There is no reason to address it as anything else. Denounce it for it’s flawed methodology and bias, throw it out, forget about it, and then I would say do real research on the families you think you need to.


  4. All well and good, but the Regnerus study must be withdrawn for the deliberately fraudulent garbage it is, and those responsible must be disciplined by their respective professional organizations and academic institutions. That’s the immediate goal.

    Until that happens, I don’t see how any futher studies, no matter how carefully put together, will be trusted by anyone. Regnerus, and Wright have damaged your profession far more than you have apparently been able to realize.


  5. There are many egregious violations in Regnerus’ “study.” I was surprised it was published and even more disappointed the University did not withdraw the study after learning how flawed Regnerus’ methodology was. How exceedingly sad that science can now be purchased by political demagogues with a specific agenda. Dr. Regnerus, have you no sense of human decency or ethics?


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