This is the text of a talk presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, on a panel entitled “When the Professional Becomes Political: Responding to the New Family Structures Survey,” on August 12, 2013. It was offered at the close of the session, after commentary by Andrew Perrin, Brian Powell and Megan Carroll on the empirical limitations and public response to a 2012 article by Mark Regnerus entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Survey.” (You can read about the controversy surrounding the study here, here and here.) Or, you can just watch a video of the presentation here.
In this brief set of comments, I’d like to offer some reflections about the frame of the conversation we are having today, and specifically, about the ways distinct cultures of social science research exist and often go unnoticed or uninterrogated.
My colleagues have done a terrific job arguing that the core methodology underlying the NFSS and the policy arguments it informs are both irreparably flawed. The study, it is clear, was designed to promote a single policy argument: that children raised in so-called gay households are less psychologically healthy than peers in nuclear marital families, and that gay and lesbian families should thus be excluded from legal marriage. In the writing itself, the study implies an aim on the part of its author to improve the lives of individual children; what it was designed to do, in its publication and more importantly, in Regnerus’ role as signatory on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court marriage cases, was to scaffold legal and political efforts to restrict the legal recognition of gay and lesbian families.
I want to step back and pose a simple and often overlooked question: What does it mean to ask the empirical question “how different” is one group from another? In particular, what cultural work is done by a social science that takes a dominant group, one with institutional and political support, as the comparison point against which to measure the lives and well-being of members of subordinated classes? In answer to this question, I hope to make three main points: First, the categories we use in social science research don’t just reflect, but also construct social reality. Second, the idea of difference intrinsically implies a value judgment. And third, that questions about difference become political imperatives. So, if we decide there is some sort of difference, what response is demanded as a result of that?
It’s old news, at this point, to say that social scientists actually have the power to produce certain forms of inequality through the construction of the very categories we use. As Dorothy Smith (here) argued two decades ago, SNAF (the standard north American family) is as much an ideological code as it is a descriptive term. By that she meant that the idea that there is a dominant, stable, heterodyadic family unit works much like a genetic code, reproducing its characteristic forms and order across discursive sites, from the media, to government bureaucracies to scientific practices. The Regnerus analysis is a perfect example of how this works; it installs the heterosexual marital family as the gold standard for all comparison, even as he himself admits it is far from statistically dominant. Further it is clear that the category for gay parents he constructs neither accurately corresponds to, nor helps elucidate, the practices, motivations, or interests or experienced of those he purports to study. The implication, even before the analysis begins, is that there is a singular gold standard for human relationship against which all others are to be measured. That standard makes deviations a moral choice, one seemingly divorced from the social, cultural and institutional pressures that might frame the same-sex behavior of survey participants. When we look for ways a subordinated group is different from the dominant group, particularly when those differences we plan to measure have to do with psychological health, we automatically position that group as deficient. We also risk masking the structural and cultural disadvantage they face with some purportedly value-neutral concept of inherent personal or relational characteristics.
This “difference versus no difference” debate is, in and of itself a conservative political ploy, aimed at a mass media landscape. It’s not a value-neutral empirical question. By posing that very question political conservatives frame the issue as one of social desireability rather than basic human rights. As Judith Stacey argued (here), ““The discursive regime of virtual social science imposes conservative epistemological frameworks on sociological speech that invisibly undermine even overtly critical messages.” C. Wright Mills’ democratic social sphere, she says, is now a soundbite sphere. As a consequence for progressives, even the participation in dominant discourses of progressive social scientists risks reinforcing structures of thought and value antithetical to a critical sociological stance and to issues of social justice. So, what Regnerus does is throw down the gauntlet and circumscribe the kind of conversation social scientists are having about what it actually means that gay families exist. The question already draws boundaries around what this debate has to look like; and we, as queers and allies rise to the call and respond, but we respond within these terms that we never set out or agreed to in the first place.
It’s time to stop taking the bait. It’s time to stop having these kinds of conversations about queer families. It’s time to turn our attention elsewhere and to take an agentic role in reframing the debate about the health of parents and children in diverse family forms. If we believe there is value in investigating how to help certain groups (ie children) thrive, then we must make that the focus, not assigning blame. What social scientists have proven, again and again, is that the structural conditions that scaffold family life and the cultural support of surrounding communities have tremendous effects on the well being of individuals and families alike. Abbie Goldberg and JuliAnna Z. Smith (2011) found evidence that favorability of the legal climate toward lgbt families correlated with better psychological health for both lgbt parents and their children. Lick, Tornello, Riskind, Schmidt and Patterson’s study (here) found that the social climate and perceived social support for lgbt families also predicted the well-being of children raised by gay and lesbian adults, regardless of the sexual orientation of the child him or herself. In in-depth interviews with the children of gay and lesbian parents, Kuvlanka, Leslie and Radina (here) found that both interpersonal enactments and structural disadvantages were salient features of social life for youth, things they talked and worried about, things that affected their quality of life, who reported engaging in self-protective measures that ranged from being fearful, to openly defiant or simply detached in the face of discrimination by others. This sounds an awful lot like the kinds of outcomes Regnerus measured.
These coping mechanisms infect not only social relationships but personal health, as well. How this works for the children of queer families is unclear. Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University has demonstrated (here) that bullying and harassment experienced by students even perceived by their peers to be LGBTQ led directly to lower levels of life satisfaction and higher rates of depression in young adulthood. Might some version of the same be true for the children of lgbt parents? We don’t know, because we haven’t asked that question. In her 2009 article in the journal Pediatrics (here), she reported that young adults who experienced high levels of rejection were significantly more likely to attempt suicide and experience depression and to attempt to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs than were LGBT youth raised in supportive environments. In short, all the things adults say or do not say affect the way kids feel about themselves and what they believe their chances are for living a happy life.
So, is comparing family forms and rating some better than others really the best we can do for these children and their lgbt parents? Perhaps the next step for those of us with an interest in supporting youth should be to examine in this sort of nuanced detail the impact of cultural heterosexism on family stability and youth outcomes. If what we want is better child outcomes, and more solid and enduring connections between parents and children, our energies would be better spent studying different questions, questions like: How can we ensure that children receive the social supports they need to thrive? How can we, as a culture, or as a discipline, nurture people through difficult life transitions, like divorce, so they can keep their relationships to their children intact? How can we mitigate the forces of social intolerance on the fragile emotional lives of vulnerable youth? These are the inquiries that promise some hope of improving the lives of children.
On a personal note: I am the gay parent of a young child. Today, I want to tell you from firsthand experience that the very publication of studies like the NFSS exacts a particular form of psychic violence– on families, on families like mine, on scholars like me. As a sociologist and a gay parent, I can withstand the accusations of instability and unfitness it levies at my partner and I. I can disregard the cultural assumption that my daughter will be somehow harmed by the form of love we choose to provide her with, that some disregard my family as less valuable or worthy of support than that of other families. I can sit in rooms at professional conferences and watch my peers and colleagues dispassionately debate the legitimacy of my relationship and the fundamental right of my family to exist. The question is not whether I can withstand that, the question is whether I should have to withstand that. The question is what sort of intellectual project is sociology if it demands that of me, or of you.
A single, simple point bears repeating, one often left out of public gay family politics. The point of comparative work on the relative social desireability of certain forms of love and care is never to scaffold, protect or meaningfully enhance the life experiences of research subjects; instead, studies like this one demean and devalue the primary relationships in their subjects’ lives. By asking the questions, “Are these families and parents of survey respondents legitimate, sufficient and healthy” Regnerus and his colleagues engage in tactics of humiliation that mask themselves in the cloak of social science. It’s clear that the parents of his survey respondents were in no meaningful way “gay and lesbian parents;” and yet, with linguistic flourish, he divests queer families of their integrity, their dignity and their right to basic acknowledgement, respect and protection.
This very fact puts LGBT and allied social scientists in a precarious rhetorical and moral position. We are called upon to respond, reply, critique and engage Regnerus and his colleagues, and in so doing, to accept the terms of the debate his research sets forth. The publication of this study and the subsequent efforts to debate its mandates are instances of the ways social science itself can become a dangerous instrument of cultural heterosexism and homophobia. As Barbara Risman (here) so aptly pointed out, “It is high time that as a discipline we have an open discussion about whether the editorial policies at our major journals privilege the allegedly ‘value-free’ versions of science over versions of a social science that include value commitments to a more just world.” In this more just world that I imagine I would not be called upon to argue dispassionately for my own basic right to live, to love and to parent my family, and to assume the kind of intellectual and emotional armor we call professionalism.