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Same-sex-couple parenting and marriage equality


In the context of the marriage equality debate, there've been a lot of discussions in recent years of the question of whether kids raised by a same-sex couple are worse off (by various measures) than kids raised by an opposite-sex couple.

But most of those discussions are irrelevant to the issue of marriage equality.

Let us assume for the moment that the worst-case scenario is true: let's assume that kids raised by same-sex couples don't do as well as kids raised by their own two biological opposite-sex parents. (I don't buy it, but let's assume it, especially because one new study claims that it's true.)

What does that tell us about marriage equality?

Absolutely nothing.

Because, listen up people, this is important:

Kids are going to be raised by same-sex couples regardless of whether those couples can legally marry in their home region.

Bills to allow or disallow marriage between two people of the same sex never explicitly allow or disallow the raising of children by two people of the same sex. That's a separate issue.

There are laws in some US states about adoption by same-sex couples, and that's an important issue and one worth discussing, but it's out of scope for this entry so I'm going to gloss over it. Because even without adoption, it's generally legal for two people of the same sex to live together and to raise a child together. (But adoption provides all sorts of important benefits; I'm certainly not saying it's unnecessary or unimportant.)

So despite what the antis want people to believe, making or keeping marriage equality illegal does not prevent same-sex couples from raising children.

Furthermore, the discussion about this child-raising issue presents a false dichotomy. It suggests that a given child has two choices: to be raised by their biological parents (who are married to each other), or to be raised by a same-sex couple.

In actual reality, those are very rarely the choices. In most cases where there's a child who's about to be raised by a same-sex couple, the chance of that kid being raised by married bio-parents is extremely low. If you want to make the outcome for that kid as good as it can be, and your options are to demonize the parents or support them, which one do you think is better for that particular kid?

Another angle on this: In order to to be relevant to marriage equality, the studies would have to compare all four of these groups:

  • Kids raised by same-sex unmarried couples.
  • Kids raised by same-sex married couples.
  • Kids raised by opposite-sex married couples.
  • Kids raised by opposite-sex unmarried couples.

That's the only way for such a study to give us useful information about whether same-sex marriage is good for kids.

And I have yet to hear of a study that looks carefully at any three of those groups, much less all four.

(Btw, in most of my entry here I'm ignoring the variable of whether the opposite-sex couple are the kid's bio-parents. That too is an important question, but not directly relevant to my point, so I'm glossing over it.)

One more way to look at it:

I gather that there've been studies that claim that kids don't do as well in the long run when raised by single parents as kids raised by married bio-parents. Let's assume for the sake of argument that those studies are right too. (I apologize to my single-parent friends for bringing this up; I don't intend this to criticize you, of course, and I am in awe of your ability to raise kids on your own. I know I couldn't do it.)

But even if we believe those studies, no modern American would be taken seriously if they said single-parenthood should be illegal. The idea doesn't even make sense. What are you going to do with the kids who are being raised by a single parent? Take them away from the parent? Force the parent to marry the other bio-parent, who may (for example) be dead? It's not possible; it's an obviously ridiculous idea on the face of it.

Now imagine that a study were to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that kids raised by parents with brown eyes do better than kids raised by parents with blue eyes. If someone were to suggest that we should thus make blue-eyed marriage illegal (think of the children!), they would be widely mocked.

So why are people taken seriously when they say that preventing marriage equality will lead to a better outcome for kids?

Again: Kids will be raised by same-sex parents regardless of whether those parents can legally marry.

So trying to suggest that preventing those parents from marrying is better for the kids is outrageous.

My entry here was sparked, of course, by the latest study, the one about which one of the authors, sociology professor Mark Regnerus, has written a mostly reasonable-sounding article in Slate. And Regnerus's key point in that article is a fair one: a lot of us (including me) do a lot of assuming, based on personal and anecdotal evidence, that kids raised by same-sex couples do as well as those raised by opposite-sex couples. Regnerus claims that most of the studies done up until now have suffered from methodological problems, including relying on too-small sample sizes and self-reported outcomes. So, sure, we may not have all the data we need yet to have valid statistics about kids raised by same-sex couples.

But Regnerus also smugly claims that this new study is better because it uses “better methods.” And that's ridiculous, given that their central question about the kids seems to have been whether either parent ever had a same-sex relationship. Here's how Regnerus describes it in the article (I haven't read the study):

[M]y colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex. I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.

(The specific survey question: “From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?”)

My first reaction was: “Wait, so if your father had a secret gay affair that was later revealed, then you're counted in the category of kids raised by same-sex parents? What?” But looking at the survey questions and responses, I think Regnerus may've made this aspect sound slightly goofier than it really was; they did ask a followup question about whether the kid “ever lived with” the parent while the parent was in a same-sex relationship. But “ever lived with” is still a far cry from “raised by.” And speaking of small sample sizes, if I'm reading the results right, only 0.17% (25 out of 15,058) of the respondents said that they had ever lived with their father while he was in a same-sex relationship, and only 0.9% (135 out of 15,058) said they'd ever lived with their mother while she was in a same-sex relationship.

So I'm not convinced that this was in fact a study of people who were raised by a same-sex couple.

Later in the article, Regnerus adds:

There are limitations to this study, of course. We didn’t have as many intact lesbian and gay families as we hoped to evaluate, even though they are the face of much public deliberation about marriage equality. But it wasn’t for lack of effort.

But you must have known, Prof. Regnerus, that the main thing your study is going to be used for is to vilify exactly those “intact lesbian and gay families.” If they weren't really who you were evaluating, don't you think you ought to have started out your article by explicitly saying that?

William Saletan has a good response (also published in Slate) to the study and to Regnerus's article. He points out the methodological flaw I noted above, and he also mentions that the study was funded by two socially conservative organizations.

(For more reactions, mostly along similar lines, see Andrew Sullivan's post.)

Anyway, I guess a lot of my reaction to this particular study could be summed up by saying that the study doesn't show what it purports to show, but that that fact is likely to be lost in the public debate about it.

But again, my main point in this entry is not about this particular study, because even if this study did show exactly what it intended to show, it would not be a valid or even relevant argument against marriage equality.


An odd thing about this is the connection with the dreaded Broccoli Mandate. You know, if we give the government power over X and Y, then it will force everyone to eat broccoli, and we'll be living in a broccoli tyranny. This is utterly crazy, of course, but it seems to be a regular talking point of the small-government conservatives.

So. If it's true, which I doubt, that it's Better For You to be raised by one mother and one father, then I say it's broccoli and I say the hell with it.


It's not just that the study is funded by socially conservative organizations -- Regnerus has a history of grinding the social-conservative axe. (I am not particularly surprised that he "didn’t have as many intact lesbian and gay families as [he] hoped to evaluate.")

Excellent analysis Jed. I think you have hoisted the professor on his petard (or something like that). But all this talk of studies and analysis and methodology makes me think of the most fundamental thing about raising a child. It is captured in a quote from Mozart, and it was used in a stunningly beautiful eulogy a friend recently gave for her mother. What she was saying in one part of the eulogy was that her mom may have lacked the sheer intellectual firepower of many of the professors running around the Stanford campus, but that her mom was sort of a genius in her own right--a genius with people, especially children. Mozart, (my friend said), once stated, "Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius." So I guess the point for me is that it doesn't matter so much what orientation the folks doing the raising are, how much money they have, what gender they are, etc. And I am skeptical of basically all studies in this field. At the end of the day, the fundamental "genius" of raising a child is love, love, love. If you truly have that, nothing matters more.

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