The "no differences" theory that children of gay parents—married or not—do not substantially differ from the children of married, heterosexual parents has now been called into question. Two studies published on June 10, in the esteemed journal, Social Science Research, come to conclusions that will cause a great deal of controversy, and should bring about further research. Here's a look at the findings:
1) A careful analysis of the research studies that led the American Psychological Association (in 2005) to assert that the children of gay and lesbian parents are in no way disadvantaged, compared to the children of heterosexual parents, has concluded those studies were inadequate. According to Dr. Loren Marks, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University, who authored the analysis: “The available data, which are drawn from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalizable claim...such a statement would not be grounded in science.”
2) The New Family Structures Study (NESS), published by Dr. Mark Regnerus, Associate Professor at the University of Texas, compared thousands of young adults (ages 18-39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements.
Those who knew that their mothers had had a lesbian relationship fared significantly worse on measures of educational attainment and household income, reported more depression, used marijuana more, more often reported forced sexual encounters, felt less close to their biological mother, felt less safe and secure in their family of origin, had more often pled guilty to a minor criminal offense and were more likely to be on public assistance.
Those who knew their fathers had had a gay relationship were more likely to have been arrested, to have thought recently about suicide, to feel depressed, to report sexually transmitted diseases and to have experienced forced sex.
Twenty-three percent of young adults who knew their mother to have had a gay relationship reported being forced to have sexual contact with a parent or adult caregiver, while only 2 percent of intact families with a mother and father reported such contact. For female young adults, that figure leapt to 31 percent (while only 3 percent of young women from intact heterosexual families reported this).
In saying that the children of parents who were known to have engaged in homosexual relationships reported these increased rates of suffering, it is important to note that the rates were higher for these children (now young adults) than for children in intact families with two biological parents, children whose parents divorced late in life, children who were raised with a step-parent in the home, children raised by a single parent and children adopted by strangers.
This data—and it is data—does not indicate why these differences were found. And neither paper suggests how to minimize the hurdles that children of gay parents seem to face during adulthood. But the data should not be dismissed. It was generated, after all, by academic leaders at major universities and published by an esteemed journal with no political agenda and an advisory board with representatives from about three dozen universities.
No doubt those with an investment in whether gay marriage is legalized will frame these findings as evidence that we should not be encouraging such unions. Perhaps proponents of gay marriage will argue that more need be done to mainstream such unions, and homosexuality itself, in order to reduce any stigma suffered by children born to parents who have had gay relationships. After all, this study did not specifically address (as a separate group) the children born to gay couples who were married.
What we should avoid at all costs is silencing such research and such discussion because it is seen by some as politically incorrect. Where optimizing the well-being of children is involved, no stone should be left unturned.
It would be important to know, for example, whether children who are born to gay parents seem to run into less (or more) trouble if their parents are married.
It would seem to be important to know whether children of gay parents run into less trouble if they were the products of artificial insemination vs. the product of a prior heterosexual relationship. Where the fallout of certain childrearing circumstances seems to be more depression, suicide, lawlessness, drug use, sexually transmitted disease and economic hardship, we ought not scare off the scientific community from doing what it does—research and reporting of the facts.
In this regard, I should note something important: I hesitated to write about this topic in an opinion piece. I didn’t hesitate because I think the topic frivolous. I didn’t hesitate because I think of Social Science Research as a meaningless journal (because it is anything but that). I didn’t hesitate because funding for the NESS comes partly from conservative groups (because data are data, unless they can be refuted on objective grounds, and this study is painstaking, in many regards). I hesitated because I worried about getting more of the threats and hate mail (by post and e-mail) I receive whenever I even mention the seemingly unspeakable issue of how social forces related to sexual orientation and gender identity might impact well being in children.
Yet, yielding to that worry would mean that being bullied way back when I was a school kid might have left me timid, and I just can’t abide that. When I see a path of enquiry that might yield some bit of truth, I want to try to be the person who takes it, no matter how treacherous. And, so, it is with this commentary, now in your good hands, to take or leave, to debate, to discuss—as Tennyson wrote, “to strive, to seek, to find...”
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.