November 3, 2006

LA Times on Lesbian/Gay Parents: He Said/She Said?

Posted at 11:37 am (Pacific Time)

I didn’t plan my October 30 posting about parenting by same-sex couples to coincide with an article on the same topic in the Los Angeles Times.

But there it was in last Monday’s edition — the story by Kevin Sack, titled “Do Children of Gay Parents Develop Differently?“, a sidebar to his 3-part series on a gay male couple attempting to have children.

The headline’s question was answered — sort of — in the sub-headline, which read “Research suggests there’s no distinction. But the field is a young one, and studies are often colored by politics.”

The questions raised by that “but” prompted me to write this post.

To begin, it’s important to note that the Times accurately characterized current knowledge in many respects:

  • It reported (correctly) that experts generally agree that no empirical basis exists for concluding the children of lesbian and gay parents fare worse or better than those raised by heterosexual parents.
  • It (correctly) summarized the conclusions of sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz in their 2001 literature review published in the American Sociological Review: “Almost uniformly, they wrote, the research found no systematic differences between children reared by a mother and father and those raised by same-sex parents.”
  • It quoted Dr. Charlotte Patterson, one of the leading researchers in this field (whose recent paper I summarized in Monday’s posting), as saying the children of lesbian and gay parents display “pretty positive adjustment.”
  • And it noted (correctly) that major professional organizations with relevant expertise — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association — have endorsed the conclusions summarized by Dr. Patterson.

In discussing the limitations of current research, however, the article raised three questions that may have left many readers doubting the validity of this entire area of research.

Question #1. Is the research definitive?

I’m sure everyone working in this area would agree that more research is needed on parenting and sexual orientation. In making this point, however the Times adopted what struck me as an accusatory and dismissive tone that cast undue doubt on the findings to date:

“Despite three decades of research on gay parenting, social scientists cannot conclusively determine whether children raised by homosexuals develop differently, for better or worse, than those raised by heterosexuals. Though the early consensus is that they do not, even the investigators acknowledge the field is too young, the numbers too few, the variables too many and the research too values-laden to qualify as definitive.”

The message seems to be that the lack of conclusive findings is damning. In truth, however, social scientists lack “definitive” findings on practically every topic we study. The investigators are usually the first to acknowledge this fact.

Yes, we need more research on parental sexual orientation and its effects (or lack of them) on children. Yes, that research should be conducted with bigger and better samples. But the published studies now number more than two dozen. Over time, the measurement techniques and sampling strategies used in this research have grown increasingly sophisticated. Recent studies have reported findings from a representative sample of the US population.

On the specific questions of (a) whether the children of gay parents are less well adjusted than the children of heterosexuals, and (b) whether their parents are less fit, we actually know quite a lot, especially about families headed by lesbians. The research to date has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents, and their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents. The burden of proof rests with those who claim that being raised by lesbian or gay parents harms children.

As more data become available, our understanding of parental sexual orientation and child development will become even more extensive and nuanced. We’ll be better able to describe the entire population of kids with sexual minority parents. But scientists’ reflexive caution and our oft-repeated mantra that “more research is needed” hardly mean we know nothing in this area today.

Question #2. Do scholars disagree about how some of the data should be interpreted?

The Times quoted Dr. Stacey, who questioned researchers’ interpretations of some of their findings, echoing the comments she and Dr. Biblarz made in their 2001 paper.

Drs. Stacey and Biblarz agreed there are clearly no deficits in the psychological or social adjustment or intellectual abilities of children raised by sexual minority parents. However, they hypothesized that those children might differ from kids with heterosexual parents in other areas, namely, conformity to traditional gender roles and sexual attitudes and behavior. They discussed a few studies that reported such differences, and speculated that other studies might also have found significant differences if the researchers had recruited larger samples or used different statistical techniques.

I reviewed the latter studies myself and, for the record, I respectfully disagree with Drs. Stacey and Biblarz about most of them, as I noted in my 2006 American Psychologist paper. But the questions Drs. Stacey and Biblarz raised are legitimate and useful.

This is how science works. Researchers report their data in detail so other scholars can examine the results, debate them, and build on them in future studies.

However, it’s important to stress that, while Drs. Stacey and Biblarz proposed alternative interpretations of the data, they didn’t equate differences with deficits. Rather, they concluded:

“Most of the differences in the findings discussed above cannot be considered deficits from any legitimate public policy perspective. They either favor the children with lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent ‘just a difference’ of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.” (p. 177)

Nor did they question the researchers’ honesty or integrity. Such accusations have been the province of the Christian Right. This leads to the final question raised in the Times article.

Question #3. Do the researchers in this area lack integrity? Are they merely pursuing their own political agenda?

This charge came from Timothy J. Dailey, to whom the Times implicitly accorded the status of social scientist. Dailey, however, isn’t a scientist. He’s a representative of the Family Research Council, a Christian Right organization with an unabashedly antigay political agenda.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that Mr. Dailey also wrote the FRC’s report claiming child molesters and pedophiles are disproportionately likely to be gay men; see my October 7 posting.)

Dailey’s allegation (quoted by the Times) is that much of the existing research on sexual minority parenting has been “compromised by methodological flaws and driven by political agendas….”

Moreover,

” ‘openly lesbian researchers’ — he named Patterson specifically — ’sometimes conduct research with an interest in portraying homosexual parenting in a positive light….’ To do so, Dailey wrote, ignores ‘the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial, which testifies that the best way for children to be raised is by a mother and a father who are married to each other.’ “

Although the Times article gave voice to Dailey’s ad hominem attack on Dr. Patterson’s work, it didn’t note that her research has been subjected to extensive peer review and published in the most highly regarded professional journals in the field. Unlike the FRC, scientific reviewers base their evaluations on the quality of the research, not the researcher’s personal characteristics or claims about “the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial.”

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On balance, the Times mostly got it right. However, by granting unwarranted legitimacy to the FRC’s claims, the article probably led some readers to dismiss the research in this area as simply “colored by politics.” If so, this is unfortunate.

Empirical research can’t reconcile disputes about core values, but it is very good at addressing questions of fact. Policy debates will be impoverished if this important source of knowledge is simply dismissed as a “he said, she said” squabble.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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