Adult Children of Parents in Same-Sex Relationships Report Varied Outcomes

June 11, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — Adult children of parents who were in same-sex relationships differ notably on a variety of social, emotional and relationship factors from adult children raised by biological parents who are married and heterosexual, according to research led by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, to be published in the July issue of Social Science Research, are particularly significant because they are based on the first large-scale, population-based survey of young adults that features a large number of cases in which survey respondents’ parents had been in same-sex relationships.

“Most conclusions about same-sex parenting have been drawn from small, convenience samples, not larger, random ones,” Regnerus said. “The results of that approach have often led family scholars to conclude that there are no differences between children raised in same-sex households and those raised in other types of families. But those earlier studies have inadvertently masked real diversity among gay and lesbian parenting experiences in America.”

Regnerus cautions that his analysis identifies differences in outcomes, but it does not provide causal evidence as to why the differences exist.

Since children are more likely to live with a lesbian mother than a gay father, Regnerus primarily focused on the larger sample — adult children of lesbian mothers — in making comparisons with children who live their entire childhood with both of their married, biological parents.

According to his findings, children of lesbian mothers were significantly different as young adults on 25 of the 40 outcomes measured in the study when compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both of their married, biological parents. For example, they reported significantly lower levels of income, poorer mental and physical health, and poorer relationship quality with a current partner.

Sixty-nine percent of children of lesbian mothers reported that their family received public assistance at some point, compared with 17 percent from intact biological families. Just under half of children of intact biological families reported being employed full time at the time of the survey, compared with 26 percent of children of lesbian mothers.

The study did not isolate the effect of having a parent who had a same-sex relationship from other effects such as marital disruptions that preceded or coincided with a parent’s same-sex relationship. Most of the young adults in the survey with gay or lesbian parents experienced divorce or other household disruption as children, and their outcomes were thus more similar to those of children from heterosexual stepfamilies and single-parent households.

Regnerus said the study best captures what might be called an “earlier generation” of children of same-sex parents, many of whom witnessed a failed heterosexual union.

“This study may not reflect the experience of younger children growing up today in same-sex families, particularly because society has become more accepting of gay and lesbian families in the last decade,” he said. “Nor does the study tell us that same-sex parents are necessarily bad parents. Rather, family forms that are associated with instability or nonbiological parents tend to pose risks for children as they age into adulthood.”

Regnerus oversaw data collection for the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), which surveyed nearly 3,000 American adults (ages 18-39), including 175 who reported their mother having had a same-sex romantic relationship and 73 who reported their father having had a same-sex relationship.

Controlling not only for socioeconomic status differences between families of origin, but also political-geographic distinctions, age, gender, race/ethnicity and the experience of having been bullied, Regnerus drew upon 40 social, emotional and relational variables, comparing outcomes of young adult children who had a parent in a same-sex romantic relationship with outcomes of young adult children from other (heterosexual) family-of-origin types, including stepfamilies, single-parent families and adoptive parents.

“Whether same-sex parenting causes the observed differences cannot be determined from Regnerus’ descriptive analysis,” said Cynthia Osborne, associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. “Children of lesbian mothers might have lived in many different family structures, and it is impossible to isolate the effects of living with a lesbian mother from experiencing divorce, remarriage or living with a single parent. Or it is quite possible that the effect derives entirely from the stigma attached to such relationships and to the legal prohibitions that prevent same-sex couples from entering and maintaining ‘normal relationships’.”

In general, Regnerus said the study’s findings “are consistent with a large body of research that suggests that children are most likely to thrive when they are raised by their own married parents. Such families provide a biological link between parents and children, and unparalleled levels of stability, both of which have a long reach in the benefits they afford to children.”

More information about the study can be found at the NFSS website.

UT's Center for Women's and Gender Studies, working with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, has compiled an online bibliography of academic studies on this issue as well as other resources for the LGBT community.

For more information, contact: David Ochsner, College of Liberal Arts, 512 626 0788; Mark Regnerus, Department of Sociology, 512 232 6307.

11 Comments to "Adult Children of Parents in Same-Sex Relationships Report Varied Outcomes"

1.  judson said on June 11, 2012

Since when is a web survey considered legitimate science.

What an insult to real scientists.

2.  Sarah Wagner said on June 11, 2012

This study poses several problems. First, while the author says that this is about children of lesbian and gay parents, it is in fact about children with parents from a generation where being a legally secure and socially supported lesbian or gay parent was a rare occurrence.

Second, while the author says that the study does not "tell us that same-sex parents are necessarily bad parents. Rather, family forms that are associated with instability or nonbiological parents tend to pose risks for children as they age into adulthood,” he is in fact inviting very misleading comparisons. This family form is "associated with instability" not because of the nature of the family form, but because of the widespread rejection of this family form in our society up until just recently. Do not forget, it has only been since the 1970s that being "homosexual" was not considered a psychological disorder in academic and medical communities. Being lesbian or gay is still not entirely accepted, and legal security for lesbian and gay parents is variable at best in our country.

Leaving out the reasons for any discrepancies between the sets of parents is not insignificant; in fact, it tells more of the story than the statistical significance can.

3.  Michelle Brown said on June 11, 2012

It seems that the lede is buried pretty deep here:
Most of the young adults in the survey with gay or lesbian parents experienced divorce or other household disruption as children, and their outcomes were thus more similar to those of children from heterosexual stepfamilies and single-parent households.

Given this - why would the paper or this press release emphasize comparisons with married, heterosexual couples? We know that women, particularly women at who would have been primary caregivers to current adults, are less financially secure alone than when partnered.

While this study is interesting, it does not actually tell us all that much about children raised by same-sex couples.

4.  Kevin Rutkowski said on June 11, 2012

It seems like a more equitable comparison would be to compare children of same-sex partners who were in a stable relationship for the child's whole life with married opposite-sex couples. Saying that a parent was in a same-sex relationship says nothing about the stability and length of the relationship.

If anything, this study highlights the importance of legalizing same-sex marriage for the sake of children's well being.

5.  Lisa Moore said on June 11, 2012

Regnerus's conclusions, as Prof. Osborne observes, are descriptive rather than revelatory. His research is funded by a right-wing think tank that has been trying for years to produce "data" that will show that same-sex relationships are somehow socially destructive. If anything, Regerus' study suggests that legal and social recognition of and support for same-sex couples and their families provides the best outcome for children. And then there's the matter of simple justice, which suggests the same thing.

6.  Claire said on June 11, 2012

I am concerned that the university's coverage of this research suggests endorsement of this research as an outstanding example of scholarship from the faculty. The study is deeply flawed, as Jim Burroway has shown.

7.  Dorothy Drennen said on June 12, 2012

This study seems to indicate that kids do better in stable two-parent families. This is not fast-breaking news... but this study is at odds with most research in this field which indicates that kids thrive in stable nuclear families, whether the parents are heterosexual or homosexual. I question why
UT is highlighting this particular study.

8.  StraightGrandmother said on June 12, 2012

Dr. Regenerus's Respondents were raised in a MIXED ORIENTATION MARRIAGE (MOM), or a MIXED ORIENTATION SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP. A MOM is where one spouse is gay and one spouse is straight. That is who responded to this survey people who had parents in a MOM. Regnerus confirms that he found only a few Respondents who were raised in a straight up lesbian or straight up gay home. Here is part of his e-mail to me which he asked me to post.

[snip]"By the way, one of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses.[end snip] You can read the full e-mail exchange here-

We know that only 1/3 of Mixed Orientation Marriages attempt to stay together after disclosure and of that 1/3, only half manage to stay together for 3 years or more (and it goes really down hill after 7 years).

FWIW I agree with Dr. Regnerus Mixed Orientation Marriages (or Mixed Orientation Sexual Relationships) that produce children are VERY BAD for the children. And that is what his study proves. It does not attempt and does NOT assess the outcomes of children raised by 2 loving moms or 2 loving dads. It.Does.Not.

This pic by Rob Tsinai describes this research perfectly. I know he will let you re-post it.

9.  Elizabeth T. Chandler said on June 13, 2012

The funding for this study was provided by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. Just as I am skeptical of any research findings derived from drug studies funded by large drug companies, I am equally suspect of findings derived from a study funded by ultra-conservative entities who may have agendas not, necessarily based on clean research.

10.  Matt said on June 15, 2012

I don't see the role of the University as stirring up political controversy. The director of Public Affairs should bring important examples of the Academy's work to the public's attention and highlight success in our community. It seems that this study was selected for highlight merely because it is contentious.

11.  Franz M. said on June 21, 2012

Interesting discussion, thanks. Since problems within someones personality often only become visible after moving out of the "protecting" surroundings of a houshold with parents, it will only be possible to scientificaly and properly evaluate differences between being brought up by same-sex parents or a mum + dad when there is enough people in the age group of around 25 years old upwards who have been brought up in a stable houshold with same-sex parents. It would also be necessary to differentiate between those who were brought up by two fathers and those brought up by two mothers.

But there is a very basic problem with children growing up with two mothers and no father or two fathers and no mother from birth, which is that their parents cannot offer them beautifuly loving and defining relationships with both a woman (mother) and a man (father). Children recognize the difference between feminin and masculine very well from about 6 months of age, love the difference between their mum and their dad, love to interact with both as different expressions of the
relationship with a parent.

For adults it is a natural act of freedom to have diverse relationships (friends, partner, family relations etc.) with both male and female persons, as they choose and feel. Only if a child has a loving father and mother, will they have a good chance of not being deliberately deprived of the same freedom regarding the most natural and important relationship children can have - namely that with a parent, who is nurturer, role model and friend all in one. For example, allowing same-sex couples to adopt unrelated children would in my opinion unacceptably deliberately violate a fundamental natural need and right of those children. So ist not only a question of psychology or sociology but also of morality and basic human rights of children.