By Sofia Resnick
From researcher to advocate
The University of Texas professor behind the controversial study that became instant fodder for gay-marriage foes wades further into the debate
WASHINGTON -- “You are a researcher, not an advocate. You are simply reporting on what the data tells us.”
This is the first in a long list of media-training guidelines drafted for sociologist Mark Regnerus in preparation for last year’s release of his findings of the infamous “New Family Structures Study,” a flawed, politically motivated study that suggests that children of gay parents experience more unfavorable outcomes compared to children of heterosexual, married parents.
The guidelines instructed the University of Texas at Austin associate sociology professor to focus on the science of his study and to emphasize his apolitical views. Regnerus echoed many of these talking points when his study was first released, taking pains to maintain a neutral front on the gay-marriage debate. He stated in his papers and in interviews that the study was not about gay marriage or even about gay parenting. Regnerus continues to try to appear neutral on these issues in media interviews, recently telling The New York Times’ Bill Keller that, concerning gay marriage, his study “paints the reality of people’s lives as fairly complicated.”
But Regnerus’ more recent actions indicate many of his talking points were simply that: talking points.
Since those early days, Regnerus has signed on to a “friend of the court” brief in both gay-marriage cases recently taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the court to uphold California’s ban on same-sex marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. He has blogged about his skepticism regarding the health of kids raised by gay parents, and he’s signed on to speak at a National Organization for Marriage-affiliated conference dedicated to arming college-age kids with research that opposes gay marriage.
‘Points to Avoid’
As The American Independent reported last month, the Witherspoon Institute, the conservative think tank that funded the bulk of the New Family Structures Study, pushed to have the study’s results out before “major decisions of the Supreme Court,” according to documents obtained through a public records request.
Among those documents – which are still being released in chunks – is a document titled “Mark Regnerus Media Training,” which encouraged the professor to focus on the fact that his study was a large, random, nationally representative study, unlike the majority of the existing research on gay parenting. He was told to avoid politics.
The origin of this training document, which is undated, is unknown. David Ochsner, director of public affairs at the University of Texas’ College of Liberal Arts, said he did not believe the guidelines were issued by UT, and he said Regnerus told him he could not remember where they came from. Witherspoon Institute President Luis Tellez said they were not issued by the Witherspoon Institute.
Regnerus’ “key points to make” included:
- This study does not ascribe a cause to the effects, it simply reports the data.
- For many years, gay advocates have claimed that there are no meaningful differences between children of same-sex couples and other children. This study shows this not to be true.
- Young adults raised in a same-sex household are [list key findings such as more likely to have considered suicide, etc.].
The training document also listed “points to avoid/hard questions.” Regnerus was encouraged, for example, to avoid stating his opinion of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.
But if asked about his own opinion on gay marriage, he was instructed to say:
This study is not about same-sex marriage. It does not attempt to assess the differences between those gay couples who have married and those who have not. It is focused on the differences between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised in an [sic] intact families.
Were he to be asked about whether gay couples should be able to adopt children, Regnerus was instructed to say:
Again, I am a researcher, not an advocate. Our research finds that there are a number of significant differences between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised in intact families where their parents are married to each to her. I have no position on adoption, gay marriage or any other similar issue.
Were he to be asked about the Witherspoon Institute’s politics, Regnerus was told to point out that liberal organizations fund academic studies, and he was instructed to emphasize that “Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study,” an oft-repeated statement that has been called into question, given that a Witherspoon fellow was heavily involved in many aspects of the study and – including recommending a journal to publish it in – while also working on the study as a paid consultant employed by the University of Texas.
Some of the same language in these crafted answers appeared in the Q&A with himself that Regnerus posted on his blog in June 2012.
Regnerus adhered to some of these guidelines in early interviews.
“I don’t have a political axe to grind,” he said in an interview last summer with UT’s student newspaper The Daily Texan. “I know the funders are conservative. I don’t know what they make of this. … My views have never been a part of this process or affect how I go about analyzing things.”
Aligning with gay-marriage foes
But more and more, Regnerus has waded further into the gay-marriage debate.
Perhaps most tellingly, he joined the slew of activists trying to influence Supreme Court justices with his research, by signing on to a little-noticed “friend of the court” brief filed in both cases before the court, Hollingsworth v. Perry – challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 – and United States v. Windsor – challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act
The brief, signed by seven social-science professors in support of the legal teams defending Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, argued that “compelling evidence shows that children benefit from the unique parenting contributions of both men and women” and attacked the American Psychological Association’s position that there is “no difference” in outcomes of children raised by same-sex parents versus heterosexual parents, saying that claim is based on studies that are methodically flawed.
Arguing that “there is no dispute that a biological mother and father provide, on average, an effective and proven environment for raising children,” the brief’s authors concluded that, “The State of California and the federal government thus have a rational interest in supporting that proven parenting structure by reserving the title and status of marriage to unions comprised of a man and a woman.”
Among the many scholarly articles referenced in this brief are both articles Regnerus wrote on the New Family Structures Study for Social Science Research and another article he co-wrote related to the influence of parent-child relationships on teens’ virginity status, published in the Journal of Family Issues in 2006.
The brief addressed the major criticisms hurled at the New Family Structures Study, among them that the study wrongly compared intact heterosexual families to families that experienced breakups and transitions but were classified as same-sex households because a child had reported that at some point his or her parent had experienced a same-sex romantic relationship. The brief’s authors challenged this criticism by suggesting that same-sex relationships are by their nature unstable.
“[T]he fact that most of the same-sex households were at some point unstable raises the question of whether stable same-sex households were genuinely undercounted in the study, or whether same-sex relationships were more short-lived,” the brief’s authors wrote. “The last scenario is possible, if not probable, given other research on the comparative volatility of lesbian relationships.”
Along with Regnerus, the brief was signed by Simon Fraser University economics professor Douglas W. Allen, Penn State University associate sociology professor David J. Eggebeen, Brigham Young University family life professor Alan J. Hawkins, Baylor University social-sciences professor Byron R. Johnson, Ava Maria University assistant economics professor Catherine Pakuluk, and Brigham Young University assistant economics professor Joseph Price.
The sociologists’ brief was directly challenged in an amicus brief filed in late February by the American Sociological Association, Regnerus’ professional organization. In that brief, authors argued that Regnerus’ data did not support his paper’s conclusions and addressed the brief’s attacks on studies that have found no differences among outcomes of children raised by straight parents versus children raised by gay parents.
Just a few days before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the same-sex-marriage cases, Regnerus blogged about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent endorsement of gay marriage, writing that the few population-based studies on gay parenting – presumably including his own – “seem to foster skepticism about moving quickly or universally to deny children their right to a mom and a dad.”
“The science on same-sex parenting remains comparatively new, unable to keep up with political and legal developments,” he wrote. “But those few population-based studies that exist — that map what’s going on across the country — seem to foster skepticism about moving quickly or universally to deny children their right to a mom and a dad. It’s not a popular position, of course. In the end, we all want children to thrive. Many organizations and scholars assert that same-sex marriage is a step toward that end, ensuring household stability. Others remain skeptical, and wonder whether this isn’t more about parents’ wishes than those of children.”
Additionally, Regnerus is listed as one of the featured speakers at the summer’s It Takes a Family to Raise a Village conference in San Diego, sponsored by the Ruth Institute. Former George Mason University economics professor Jennifer Roback Morse founded the Ruth Institute in 2008 and was a prominent supporter of California’s gay marriage ban. Her group, which became affiliated with the National Organization for Marriage in 2009, has frequently been called out by LGBT-rights groups and bloggers for promoting anti-gay rhetoric and so-called “ex-gay” therapy.
Carlos Maza, a researcher at Equality Matters, an LGBT-focused initiative of Media Matters for America, attended last year’s It Takes a Family conference undercover and caught on tape speakers referencing Regnerus’ study to support attacks on gay people raising children. Jenet Jacob Erickson, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, was recorded citing the study in support of the claim that same-sex relationships are “dysfunctional and erratic and not stable.”
Regnerus did not respond to requests for comment.
The Ruth Institute and the National Organization for Marriage are among the Witherspoon Institute’s many allied organizations – several of which share founders, board members, and resources – that have helped the New Family Structures Study fulfill its purpose: to challenge the increasingly popular belief among the mainstream social science community that kids raised by gay parents turn out fine. At least from the Witherspoon Institute’s perspective, the study’s ultimate purpose was to provide the court with evidence that banning gay marriage is in the public’s interest, based on the reasoning that heterosexual family structures are superior.
Already, the study has had this effect, at least for one justice on the Supreme Court.
Arguing before the court in defense of California’s gay-marriage ban, attorney Charles Cooper appeared to be struggling to come up with reasons why gay marriage harms or denigrates “traditional opposite-sex marriage couples.” Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his politically conservative views, interjected – bringing up kids, and sociology.
“Mr. Cooper, let me -- let me give you one -- one concrete thing,” Scalia said. “I don't know why you don't mention some concrete things. If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must -- you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there's - there's considerable disagreement among -- among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a -- in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not -- do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason. … I don’t think we know the answer to that. Do you know the answer to that, whether it – whether it harms or helps the child?”
“No, Your Honor. And there’s – there’s --” Cooper responded.
“But that’s a possible deleterious effect, isn’t it?” Scalia said. He later added, “I take no position on whether it's harmful or not, but it is certainly true that -- that there’s no scientific answer to that question at this point in time.”
Cooper did not directly answer the question, but he agreed with Scalia’s point – and argued that the plaintiffs have to prove that gay marriage will cause no harm to straight married couples. Not only that, but he said plaintiffs have to prove that “that it’s beyond debate that there will be no harm.”
On the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Proposition 8 case, gay-marriage foes gathered at the National Mall for a rally organized by the National Organization of Marriage. Organizers passed out brochures titled “What You Need to Know about Marriage: Questions & Answers Driving the Debate.” In addition to NOM, the brochure’s listed sponsors included the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation, all social conservative groups based in Washington, D.C.
The first “consequence of redefining marriage” listed in the brochure is that, “Redefining marriage would hurt children. Decades of social science – including very recent and robust studies – show that children do better when raised by a married mom and dad.”
The endnotes cited Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study findings to support this claim.