Gay Marriage Amendments Ban Good Science

Regardless of one’s opinion of how Republicans have governed the last six years, they have unquestionably proved expert at a common strategy for maintaining power: bringing their base to the polls by singling out enemies. In the last two elections and the ensuing years, they have skillfully fomented fear of both terrorists and gay people as threats to the country’s survival. In their permanent campaign against the latter, Republicans continue to put gay-marriage-ban amendments on election ballots and will do so again in November, this time in seven states.


The core of conservatives’ argument for denying marriage to gay people is that the purpose of state-sanctioned marriage is ensuring stable, healthy environments in which children can grow up. Gay people, goes the rationale, do not make good parents: the research shows that their children are at risk for a number of negative outcomes. So limiting marriage to heterosexuals is not actually an expression of prejudice, but a compassionate option for protecting the welfare of kids.


Anti-gay marriage activists repeatedly assert that they have extensive research to back up the claim that heterosexual parents are better for kids. But they either cite studies that fail basic tests of science or misquote the conclusions of scientifically sound studies.


For example, the Virginia Family Foundation puts forward the following to support that state’s proposed draconian constitutional amendment banning both gay marriage and civil unions: “The most important reason to protect traditional marriage is for the well-being of children . . . . A plethora of studies show that children benefit emotionally, physically, economically and educationally in a traditional, two-parent home.” What the Foundation neglects to mention is that the studies it has in mind focus on heterosexual rather than gay parents.


Such twists of the truth are regrettably common. Here are the three favorite “science-based” claims of anti-gay marriage activists — and the reasons why they fail to hold up:


Claim 1: Children are more likely to be abused by gay parents. The 1996 journal article “Homosexual Parents” appears frequently in the reference lists of anti-gay literature. Published in the journal Adolescence, it concludes that gay parents are more likely to abuse their children: 29 percent of the adult children of gay parents studied were subjected to sexual molestation by their parents, compared with only 0.6 percent of children of heterosexual parents. The findings appear to be a powerful indictment of gay parenting.


Instead, they’re an indictment of the study’s lead author, Nebraska psychologist Dr. Paul Cameron, who has an antagonistic relationship with actual scientists (his coauthor was his son Kirk). Paul Cameron was booted out of the American Psychological Association in 1983 for refusing to cooperate with its ethics committee’s investigation of charges that he was distorting the findings of other researchers in his own work. In 1984, the Nebraska Psychological Association formally disassociated itself from “the representations and interpretations of scientific literature offered by Dr. Paul Cameron in his writings and public statements on sexuality.” And in 1985, the American Sociological Association adopted a resolution stating, “Dr. Paul Cameron has consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”


More important, the Camerons’ article includes the startling statement that the authors “make no claims that [our study] is ‘representative’ of homosexual parenting . . .” The study, that is, offers anecdotes rather than science. Such fare is carried only in obscure journals like Adolescence, as Paul Cameron himself helpfully pointed out in 1982.  Critiquing another researcher’s study in Adolescence, he wrote, “. . . [the researcher], writing in an obscure journal, makes a claim that would not be allowed in a refereed journal . . . .”


Cameron is only a researcher in the broadest definition of the term now that he has been excommunicated by the scientific community.

Claim 2: Gay people are prone to psychological problems and short-lived relationships, which have negative effects on children. Dr. George Rekers, Chairman of Faculty in Psychology at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, authored a 2004 literature review that explores the effects on children of living with gay parents. Review of Research on Homosexual Parenting, Adoption, and Foster Parenting is a heavily footnoted paper ubiquitous in the reference lists of anti-gay books and articles. Its two key conclusions are (1) gay people have a higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders and substance abuse than do straight people and (2) gay relationships are unstable and short lived compared with straight relationships. In turn, Rekers cites research indicating that psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and unstable relationships put children at higher risk of stress and maladjustment.


The paper has one vital flaw: it has never been peer reviewed, so there’s no telling whether Rekers cherry picked the research that he cited and ignored studies reaching an opposite (or simply different) conclusion. The available evidence indicates that is exactly what he did.


Rekers was a founding board member of the Family Research Council in 1983 and is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. In his book Growing Up Straight he notes that “The clear teaching of Scripture, uncontradicted by psychological research, is that homosexual actions are sinful.” He also practices “conversion therapy,” which attempts to turn gay people straight. And he criticizes the American Psychological Association’s 1973 decision to stop listing homosexuality as a pathology in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.


Moreover, there’s a reason that the paper wasn’t peer reviewed: it’s an unpublished legal brief rather than a balanced literature review. Rekers wrote it to support his testimony as sole expert witness for the state of Arkansas in its legal battle to continue to deny gay people the right to serve as foster parents. In his ruling on the case in December 2004, Circuit Court Judge Timothy Fox noted that unlike the other expert witnesses, who provided facts that would inform the judge’s decision, “It was apparent from both Dr. Rekers testimony and his attitude on the stand that he was there primarily to promote his own personal ideology. If the furtherance of such an ideology meant providing the court with only partial information or selectively analyzing study results, that was acceptable to Dr. Rekers.”


When it comes to gay parents, in other words, Rekers is a fundamentalist first and a scientist second.

Claim 3: Children fare best when raised by two married, straight parents. Gay marriage opponents frequently buttress their arguments with the assertion that children have better outcomes when they grow up with a married mother and father. The most articulate advocate of this point is Maggie Gallagher, founder of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a “pro-marriage” think tank.


She summarized it best in an article in the August 2003 Weekly Standard: “As a Child Trends research brief summed up, ‘Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. . . .’” She goes on to argue that because that parenting structure is best for kids, legalizing gay marriage means subjecting children to less-than-optimum outcomes: “[Gay marriage] would mean the law was neutral as to whether children had mothers and fathers. Motherless and fatherless families would be deemed just fine.”


Child Trends, the organization that she cites, is a highly respected, nonpartisan research center. But Gallagher slyly misrepresents the conclusions of their research review, which does not discuss straight versus gay family structure, but various forms of straight family structure. Gallagher leaves out the key sentence that qualifies the statement she cites: “Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes than do children in intact families raised by two biological parents.” There is no evidence here about how children raised by gay couples fare.


Which just puts Gallagher into the camp of authors whose work should be read back to front: check the references before deciding whether the piece warrants reading.


* * *


But maybe gay marriage opponents have a point: the welfare of children should be at the center of the gay marriage debate. Yet the pro-gay marriage side tends to focus on gay marriage as an issue of fundamental civil rights (which it also is), rather than gaining traction through a complementary focus on children.


They would have a strong argument to make. If children’s well-being is the main reason for state-sanctioned marriage, one group certainly should be banned: fundamentalist Christians.


In his book Moral Politics, cognitive scientist George Lakoff cites a wealth of research on parenting styles to demolish the myth that conservatives know best how to raise children and maintain strong families. Multiple studies have identified the dominant parenting style among fundamentalist Christians as the “authoritarian” model. It is exemplified by the advice in parenting books by Focus on the Family leader James Dobson: authoritarian parents are highly demanding, focus on obedience, expect to be obeyed without explanation, and rely on physical violence to teach correct behavior.


There have been three wide-ranging, peer-reviewed surveys of the large body of research on authoritarian and other styles of parenting produced in the last 30 years. These reviews consistently indicate the negative effects on children of the authoritarian style:


·         “Children of authoritarian parents tend to lack social competence with peers: They tend to withdraw, not to take social initiative, to lack spontaneity…they do show lesser evidence of ‘conscience’ and are more likely to have external, rather than internal, moral orientation in discussing what is the ‘right’ behavior in situations of moral conflict.”[1]


·         “Adolescents from Authoritarian-Directive homes differed from those from Nonauthoritarian-Directive homes in that they (girls especially) used more drugs and exhibited more internalizing problem behavior.”[2]


·         “Children and adolescents from authoritarian families…tend to perform moderately well in school and be uninvolved in problem behavior, but they have poorer social skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression.”[3]


Disciplining children by hitting, a component of authoritarian parenting, has its own effects. A 2002 literature review of 88 studies on corporal punishment, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, noted that


·         “A Conservative Protestant affiliation and conservative religious beliefs are associated with more frequent use of corporal punishment . . .”


·         “Early experiences with corporal punishment may model and legitimize many types of violence throughout an individual’s life, particularly violence in romantic relationships . . .”


·         “In one longitudinal study, parents’ use of corporal punishment in childhood was the strongest predictor of adolescents’ aggression 8 years later.”


Fundamentalist parents’ method of child-rearing clearly poses multiple risks for their children. But why stop there? Pro-lifers and abstinence-only activists are more likely to encourage their children’s involvement in virginity pledge programs, which an authoritative 2004 study by Peter Bearman and Hannah Brueckner showed put teens at a higher risk of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Creationists are more likely to raise children who hold creationist beliefs themselves (as a 2005 National Science Foundation-supported study showed), which limits their children’s chances of a successful career in science and technology. Parents who keep a gun in the house put their adolescent children at increased risk of suicide, according to peer-reviewed studies reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health.


So here’s a modest proposal to those who believe that our country needs a marriage ban: let’s adjust it to reflect the scientific consensus about what’s good for kids. A nice start might be, “A marriage is between individual adults, except those who disclose a fundamentalist worldview” (a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to marriage). Though not politically viable, this version surely is based on better science than what will appear on state ballots in November.


It also demonstrates that marriage equality proponents shouldn’t have to play defense. The burden of proof is on the supporters of discrimination to explain why their own marriages are faring poorly in producing well-adjusted children.


Maybe then we’ll get to the real issue: gay marriage bans aren’t about kids at all. They’re just plain bigotry.




1. Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.


2. Baumrind, D. (1991). Parenting styles and adolescent development. In J. Brooks-Gunn, R. Lerner & A.C. Petersen (Eds.), The encyclopedia on adolescence (pp. 746-758). New York: Garland.


3. Darling, N. (1999). Parenting style and its correlates. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1999.

Steve Yoder, based in upstate New York, has worked on and written about child and family policy and programming for 12 years.


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