Mark Regnerus's report today that lesbian couples' children turn out worse than straight couples ignited a firestorm, drawing cheers on the social right and denunciations from the gay rights movement.
The study was the latest in a series that have made Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at UT Austin and married father of three, a darling of the right: His other findings tout the benefits of early marriage and the costs of "hookup culture."
But if he's become a star of the social right, he said in an interview, that's (almost) completely an accident.
"I'm not terribly politically-oriented myself," Regnerus told BuzzFeed Monday. "People probably won't believe it, but I've yet to vote for a Republican presidential candidate."
He adds that "I have never gone on record supporting a particular policy of any sort" and that if his work gets a lot of attention, it's likely "because I gravitate toward interesting research questions that tend to have wide public interest, and because I'm not afraid to poke my nose into controversial topics."
Regnerus's most recent study, published this month in the journal Social Science Research, found that the children of parents who had ever had a same-sex relationship differed in important ways from kids of married, straight parents. Those whose moms ever had a relationship with another woman, especially, were significantly more likely to be unemployed as adults than children of still-married straight parents; they were also more likely to seek treatment for mental illness, and to report having sex with someone else while married or cohabiting. This is potentially incendiary stuff — or, for Regnerus, business as usual.
Last year, Regnerus caused a stir by arguing that casual sex had driven the "price" of sexual intercourse down, keeping young women from getting the commitment they wanted. And in 2009, he urged women to consider getting married in their early twenties because "marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you're fully formed." His research has been championed by a variety of conservative groups. But he said his research — including the same-sex parenting study — isn't political.
The same-sex parenting study, he said, is no different. On Slate, he wrote that the political takeaway of the research was unclear, and that it might actually be an argument for increasing the stability of same-sex families by giving them the opportunity to marry. He closed, however, on this note: "It may suggest that the household instability that the [study] reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still — according to the data, at least — the safest place for a kid."
Foes of gay marriage have thrilled to Regnerus's latest research. National Organization for Marriage founder Maggie Gallagher said it showed that "compared to every other family form we know that has been studied, the 'gold standard' for children remains the intact, married biological family, a mom and a dad." Patrick Fagan of the conservative Christian Family Research Council called it "debate-altering."
Asked whether he agreed with that assessment, Regnerus said, "I don't press political answers on anybody."
Liberal critics, meanwhile, immediately questioned his scholarship.
Gary J. Gates, author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas and Williams Distinguished Scholar at UCLA Law School, criticized Regnerus's comparison between children of intact heterosexual families and children whose parents had at some point had a same-sex relationship — the latter group, he noted, had experienced divorce, step-parent arrangements, and foster care, all of which are known to affect children's lives no matter what the sexual orientation of their parents.
"The methodology," he said, "is designed to find bad outcomes" for children with same-sex parents.
Regnerus argues that he simply couldn't find enough intact same-sex-parented families to do a comparison, but Gates counters that "if you have limited sample size then you can't do the analysis."
Gates called the findings obvious: "All he's shown us is that family instability isn't good for kids."
Regnerus argues that his methodology wasn't designed to find anything.
"Sampling theory doesn't care what you think about life, relationships, or personal politics," he said.
However, he acknowledges there's a "subtext" to his work: the belief that "the project of profound, radical expressive individualism [...] is a poor one for human flourishing."
We are all constrained by social phenomena, he said, and that's not a bad thing — "constraints can produce much good in our lives, whether we like the constraints or not. Liberty run amok can create extraordinary personal disaster."
Regnerus also said the peer-review process in social science also helps root out personal biases. Gates, though, accused the journal of fast-tracking that process in the case of the same-sex parenting study — the paper was reviewed in a period of forty days, which he said is about a third of the next quickest review time for Social Science Research. Regnerus's study, he said, was "absolutely" subjected to less scrutiny than usual. Journal editor James Wright, however, told BuzzFeed that nobody cut Regnerus slack: "When reviewers are timely, the process moves much more quickly. In this case, I suspect that reviewers were intrinsically interested in the subject and treatment and were thus more timely in their reviews."
On the topic of how his work will be received, Regnerus said he doesn't much care:
"I'm not the sort of person that obsesses about peer perceptions of me. How adolescent that would be."
Academia, he said, is "like high school, with jockeying, status obsessions, who's invited where, etc."
"It's silly, and I don't play that game," he said.