Mark Regnerus: Dignitarian of the Year

Against vehement opposition, he has courageously defended the intact biological family as the best place to raise children.
Mark Regnerus and Carolyn Moynihan | 19 December 2014
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When the editors of MercatorNet selected a shortlist of five individuals for the 2014 Dignitarian of the Year they were all outstanding for various reasons: exceptional courage under religious persecution (Meriam Ibrahim); serving Ebola sufferers to the point of death (Dr Sheikh Umar Khan); impartial, politically incorrect defence of religious freedom (Baroness Sayeeda Warsi); spirited defence of the dignity of disabled persons (Baroness Jane Campbell); courage under intense fire for simply doing the job of a social scientist (Mark Regnerus).

All of these but one were uncontroversial, as the comments on the article show. Controversy is not necessarily a mark of heroism, but we have decided that in the case of Mark Regnerus it is; the comments merely illustrate the point that, unlike the other nominees, his professional reputation, livelihood and even his character are in question for as long as he dares to investigate social phenomena associated with changing attitudes to homosexuality.

Just to recap the essential points: Mark Regnerus is a tenured associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012 the first findings from his New Family Structures Study were published in the respected, peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research under the heading, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?” Unlike the small studies based on self-selected samples that were being used to influence legal and political decisions about marriage and children, his was based on a large random sample of the general population.

The NFSS study found “numerous consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still married (heterosexual) biological parents” and the differences were, on the whole, negative.

This was not what gay rights activists and their academic and professional supporters wanted to hear. Professor Regnerus came under instant attack (well before any fair academic appraisal of his study) and that has continued to the present.

Regnerus has not responded in kind. He has conducted himself with dignity and responded calmly to reasonable criticisms, but stuck to his guns over the validity of his work and his right to do it. Academic freedom and intellectual honesty on this subject is most important to the welfare of children and the future of the family, the first school of human dignity.

For this reason we have chosen Mark Regnerus as Dignitarian of the Year. We congratulate him on his particular contribution to the promotion of human dignity and invite readers to join us.

We thank him also for responding at short notice to some questions we sent and giving us the following update.

MercatorNet: It seems to us that you are still under attack for your 2012 NFSS study. Is that the case? Does it affect your professional work?

Regnerus: Yes, and yes. I’ll leave it at that.

Your data has been made available online. Has anyone attempted to replicate your study yet? Would you like them to?

Yes, the data are public. And yes, replication has already been done. There are studies working their way toward publication that analyze the data differently, namely by dealing with prevalent relational instability as a “control variable,” meaning it’ll take the focus off the fact that upheaval is more common in same-sex households. So this may well return “findings” that suggest fewer differences than my study displayed. And I will be accused of having hidden “the truth.” It’s all very predictable. I didn’t coin this phrase, but it’s apropos here: torture the data long enough, and it’ll confess anything. Indeed, there are studies that declare that two women are better at raising children than a married mother and father—in other words, stepfamilies are preferable to enduring biological ones. It’s pretty unlikely, don’t you think?

All population-based data on same-sex households with children tend to reveal similar things: greater poverty (especially among female-headed households), more substance use, and more significant upheaval. The scholars who work with such data all know this. It’s how scholars analyze and report that data that differs considerably. I chose not to paper over it but to lay out the basic associations first before adding control variables, and to spend time describing what the sampled populations are like.

That’s why it’s important for scholars to build models, starting from simple associations and working their way up—in full view of the reader—toward greater complexity. I have long preferred to build knowledge in that manner rather than in the manner in which so many are trained, which is by cutting straight to complexity and lots of control variables in the hopes of looking complicated enough to merit publication.

Complexity need not be wrong, but it masks a process. What we ought to be after is to understand how some pattern has come to be, not to “explain it away” in order to impress your friends. This is why sociology is fast becoming discounted—it’s a parochial exercise. 

Could you clear up for us exactly what the nature and chief aim of the study was? Does it tell us anything about same-sex parenting or not?

The chief aim of the study was academic, to look into the claim that there were “no differences” between those children—in my case, adult children—who grew up in same-sex households with those who grew up with a married mother and father. The detailed household calendar data I collected revealed that it’s not so easy to identify the meaning of “grew up with,” since the households of many children are a patchwork quilt of comings and goings. The study was not about parenting per se, which is more about the evaluation of processes—what parents actually do—than what I did, which was more basic, to look at the association between household structures, parents’ relationships, and adult children’s self-reports about their lives.

How difficult is it to get good data on same-sex parenting outcomes?

It’s not simple at all. And it’s expensive. And when it comes to evaluating a very small population—that of same-sex households with children—a small minority becomes a tiny minority becomes a challenge to locate randomly in numbers ample enough to generate statistical power to even capably detect differences, which was the point of the study in the first place.

Many people think I purposefully avoided surveying adult children who experienced long-term stability in a household with two mothers. Hardly. I wanted as many cases of these as the best data collection firm could possibly locate (randomly). It just wasn’t very many—a handful, really—which didn’t comport with contemporary sensibilities and assumptions. I warned people in the text of the study that the data may be a generation “old” in that sense. Some hold that the greater instability I documented in same-sex households is temporary, or a simple function of historic stigma to be improved when marriage rights are granted. I don’t think so, because stigma is diminishing rapidly but the patterns (discerned in other data) remain.

We all know narratives to the contrary—gay couples together for decades and straight ones who break apart in a matter of months or years, but those are anecdotes. I want to know what the population patterns are. Anecdotes reveal what’s possible. A random sample of a population will tell us what’s probable.

How does this issue fit into your wider field of work?

It was a “cousin” of sorts, an extension of my work on the development of heterosexual relationships, which I had been studying and writing about for several years. My own research on sexual economics and mating markets (among heterosexual relationships) can actually help here, given longstanding gendered preferences and behavior in intimate unions. Whether we call it marriage or not, unions of sexual difference will function in ways unique from unions of similarity, and children in or of those unions are not exempt from its effects. It’s not about sexual orientation but about the interpersonal dynamics of sex (that is, being male and female). There is a cultural, social, sexual, and psychological complementarity rooted in biology. Sex distinctions reach into our cellular DNA. That’s pretty elemental.

This is the reason why I eventually threw my hat into legal questions around marriage—not because my study can solve and clarify everything (it can’t) but because it and other data suggest we’re talking about a genuinely distinctive type of union. This is not to say that same-sex unions cannot last or cannot raise children. They can, and that’s why I don’t legally object to such unions and haven’t taken a strong position on gay adoption, because of human freedom and because adoption by definition is a concession—an accommodation to circumstances in which a child is unable to remain in the custody of his or her biological parents.

Most people and states wisely hold that the biological union of mother, father, and child is optimal, ideal. But altering the very structure of marriage uproots that notion and renders biology moot—irrelevant. It’s a staggering notion. It’s a fiction. We’re making it up. We owe it to children to strengthen the marital union of man and woman, not give up on it due to social pressure from peers or friends. Social justice and human dignity demand we seek what’s optimal for children, not to accommodate adults’ wishes. This is about seeking the best for the most vulnerable.

Do you agree that human dignity is at stake?

That depends on what we mean by the term. Dignity is certainly a disputed word. To many, it’s almost synonymous with freedom or choice or consent. Or that dignity means to be recognized for the autonomous choices I make. That’s not really dignity.

The minority—but truer—definition of dignity is quite different. It has to do with living into our design, to image and conform to our Creator. Which of course implies external standards—which is no doubt disputed—and means that we can go awry as persons and as communities and as families.

So yes, human dignity is at stake here. It can’t be lost, but some actions, some patterns, and some ways of development and social relations reinforce human dignity more than others. I think at bottom we all know it. However, human dignity is at stake in far more domains than just this one.  

Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, a research associate of the university's Population Research Center, and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. 

This article is published by Mark Regnerus and Carolyn Moynihan and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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