I’ve been burning to discuss this ever since I read the study analysis a couple days ago and now have the time to focus on writing this blog post. It’s getting a lot of buzz in the media, but I have refrained from reading any articles about it until after I post my own thoughts so that I can be sure they’re my own.
So what’s making the big splash? A new study published in a peer-review journal called the New Family Structures Survey (NFSS).
Before I get started, take a moment to step into the shoes of a social scientist. Compare these two groups:
Group A: Adult children who were raised by their married biological mother and biological father from when they were born until they turned 18 or left home.
Group B: Adult children with a parent who had at least one same-sex relationship from when they were born until they turned 18 or left home, regardless of the family structure in which they were raised.
Make your hypothesis. Do you hypothesize there will be demonstrable differences between Group A and Group B in various categories such as health, employment, and happiness? If so, which group will display better outcomes, Group A or Group B?
Now let’s leave that aside for a bit and discuss the NFSS. At the beginning the study (rightly) discusses sampling flaws in existing studies concerning children raised by gay parents. Most studies have only included lesbian parents with children still in the home, and the samples have been extremely small, non-random, and non-representative. This means that the study results, while sometimes providing useful data, cannot be accurately applied to the population as a whole.
Another important point discussed is that the previous studies have used self-selected samples of mostly white, urban, middle class families. Yet the typical lesbian household with children is lower income and located in conservative areas of the country in which gay populations are low. A high percentage (around 37% according to Census data) of lesbian partners raising children are Hispanic or black.
The obvious conclusion is that gay people living in highly conservative geographical regions and/or subcultures are more likely to have children because they made significant attempts to fit in and live a heterosexual lifestyle. They married, had children with their opposite-sex spouse, and then divorced and found a same-sex partner.
The NFSS used an extensive survey instrument to measure 2988 adult respondents between the ages of 18 and 39 with a sampling that is representative of the US population. The study team made a concerted effort to include respondents who have a lesbian or gay parent in order to collect useful data from a large enough sample size. They ended up with 163 respondents with a lesbian mother and 73 with a gay father, out of the 2988 total. (Twelve respondents reported both a lesbian mother and a gay father. All 12 were put into the gay father group and are included in the count of 73.)
The purported purpose of the study is to compare outcomes based on different family structures. Respondents were grouped into family structure categories to make statistical comparisons between the groups. The categories are: married biological mother and father, lesbian mother, gay father, adopted, divorced later (after the child turned 18 or left home), step family, single parent, and other.
This all sounds pretty good. Until we get to the first problem, which is one of definition. For the purposes of this study a lesbian/gay parent is defined as any parent who has ever had a same-sex relationship from the time the respondent was born until they turned 18 or left home. The survey did not ask if the parent self-identified as gay/lesbian, only if they’d had a qualifying relationship. So a mother who had a single brief fling with another woman, but otherwise identifies as straight, is considered equivalent to a mother who has never had a relationship with a man and has always identified as gay.
Next we get to the glaring, egregious problem with how the study categorized respondents. Any respondent who answered the following question with yes was put into the relevant gay or lesbian parent family category:
S7. 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?
No other criteria were used to refine the gay parent categories. This means that the lesbian mother and gay father groups include adopted children, divorced families, single parent households and so on. No distinction was drawn between a stable lesbian couple who decided to have and raise a child together, and a mother divorced from a heterosexual marriage who is serially monogamous with female partners.
Do you see the problem here? A single group containing a wide variety of family structures was compared to other groups that were defined by their family structure.
The survey did not ask respondents who answered yes to S7 any follow-up questions. No attempt was made to determine if the child had been planned (sperm donation, etc.) or if they were the result of an unplanned pregnancy or failed heterosexual marriage. All respondents filled out a timeline that indicated who they lived with and when, and that was used by the study team to make guesses.
From those guesses, the team estimates that somewhere between 17 and 26 percent of respondents with a lesbian mother might have had a planned origin, and less than 1% of those with gay fathers. 57% of respondents reported living with their lesbian mother and her same-sex partner for at least four months, but only 23% reported living with their mother and her partner for at least three years.
For gay fathers the numbers are even lower. Not surprising since the majority of respondents are from failed families where the father does not have custody. 23% reported living with a gay father and his partner for at least four months and less than 2% for at least three years.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of how the various groups measured up when compared to the IBF (intact biological family) group in the different outcomes measured. (Read the linked report to see the details.) I will summarize by saying the lesbian mother group almost always came out the worst of all the groups, often to a statistically significant degree.
Let’s go back to your hypothesis at the beginning of this post. Did you hypothesize that Group A would have a better outcome when compared to Group B? Common sense would dictate that assumption, and the study certainly supports it.
I don’t find the results surprising. The majority of the respondents in the lesbian mother group are from broken families. Additionally, women (especially divorced women and women of color) have a much more difficult time of it. It shouldn’t be surprising that families headed by women who have a more difficult time getting and keeping jobs, face prejudice on multiple fronts, come from marriages that were often filled with conflict, and overall have a lower income, end up raising children who as adults do not do as well as their peers.
To give the study team their due, they admit “different grouping decisions may affect the results.” Does anyone doubt that the results would be much different if planned children raised in a stable same-sex family were measured as a group? The report discusses this. They admit that planned families with gay or lesbian parents is a relatively new thing in any significant numbers.
The team discusses at some length the difficulty of collecting sizable representative samples because lesbian/gay households are difficult to identify and study. They don’t state this, but it’s obvious that’s partly due to the need to be circumspect or hide in many parts of the country, but also because gay people are a small percentage of the overall population in general.
The good thing about the study is that the extensive survey instrument has produced a lot of data that is now readily available to other social scientists to study, using their own methods of filtering and comparison. So why am I going into all this at such length? Because as soon as I read the report I knew it would be misused, the results obfuscated and perverted to further the anti-gay agenda.
Need proof? Well, it didn’t take long. A new amicus brief filed by the American College of Pediatricians (a discredited socially conservative group of health care professionals) in the Golinski vs. OPM case (challenging the constitutionality of DOMA) is already misrepresenting the study findings. Quoting from the brief:
A brand new study in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research uses a large random national sample to assess these outcomes. The study is based on interviews with 3,000 respondents, 175 of whom were raised by two women and 73 by two men.
Except, as we’ve already discussed, very few of the respondents studied were actually raised by two women or two men. The study does not even know how many that description applies to. The brief then gives some of the statistical analysis results, continually using terminology that implies the group being compared is made up of children raised in homes with stable same-sex couples. They draw the conclusion that this clearly indicates families headed by same-sex couples are inferior.
This misrepresentation of the findings can be, and will be, refuted in other briefings and in court by experts. But the point is that this study has now added a new layer of bad science that requires the energy and expense of refuting it. It muddies the waters and gives unwelcome fuel to the campaign against gay Americans. In short, it makes me really, really angry and really, really frustrated.