The one about high school graduation rates of children raised in LGBT homes

What does the science Journalism say?

When talking about gay parenting studies, there’s very little science journalism.  This was brought to my attention by Public Discourse, an online newsmagazine from the Witherspoon Institute, a non-profit based in New Jersey. The post was written by Mark Regnerus.

What does the research article say?

Here’s the abstract (Emphasis is added)

Almost all studies of same-sex parenting have concluded there is “no difference” in a range of outcome measures for children who live in a household with same-sex parents compared to children living with married opposite-sex parents. Recently, some work based on the US census has suggested otherwise, but those studies have considerable drawbacks. Here, a 20 % sample of the 2006 Canada census is used to identify self-reported children living with same-sex parents, and to examine the association of household type with children’s high school graduation rates. This large random sample allows for control of parental marital status, distinguishes between gay and lesbian families, and is large enough to evaluate differences in gender between parents and children. Children living with gay and lesbian families in 2006 were about 65 % as likely to graduate compared to children living in opposite sex marriage families. Daughters of same-sex parents do considerably worse than sons.

Here’s a direct link to the article on Springer

Where was the article published?

In the Review of the Economics of the Household, (homepage on Springer) a journal started in 2001.

Who wrote the article?

Douglas W Allen, a Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada

What are the red flags in this article?

There aren’t any. This is a very standard, non-controversial article using standard economics modeling techniques in a standard, well staffed academic journal. There are, however some major red flags in the coverage of this issue within this specific blog post.

In 2012, Mark Regnerus, a professor of Sociology at the University of Texas published the New Family Structures Study which was heavily criticized by liberal  and LGBT interest groups.  Allen defended Regnerus in the press as doing effective social science research and explained some of the complexities and political realities of the scholarship. Regnerus, via the Public Discourse blog, presents a prescriptive use of Allen’s paper.

In the social sciences, the kind of research that Regnerus and Allen have done is descriptive. It uses a set of data inputs from various surveys and describes large statistical correlations that exist in that data set.

In this blog post, however, Regnerus is using Allen’s data as if it were prescriptive. It is not. While it describes something that is  very real within the constraints of the data used, it does not explain why this correlation exists. It is ironic that Regnerus is using the same tactics he condemned as ‘misuse’ of his own work.

As a librarian, I would recommend both Allen’s paper and Regnerus study as useful for an undergraduate and graduate research work on the topic.


Due to some conversations below I wanted to clarify this. Part of my job as a librarian is to act as a preliminary filter for information, to curate a set of information being talked about by the academy.  This means that I reject material for collections based on some basic criteria. However, I don’t make judgements after a certain level and I work very hard to make sure my own ideological assumptions do not interfere with decisions to collect and recommend controversial material. It’s both beyond my experience and against my ethics. While I agree that there are severe methodological problems within these two articles, they are a part of the conversation within the academy and the methodological problems they both exhibit are common in many other social science studies. It is a false assumption to claim that just because I reccomend a paper for research means that I recommend it personally. 

I’m going to break that rule here for a moment for a little bit of clarity.  I think both Regnerus’ study and Allen’s paper accurately describe the data set used. That is, simplified  a basic criteria for including material in a collection. However, the way that both of these studies have been used by politicians and the general public ascribes personal failings to the LGBT parents that create the effects described. This is the kind of false assumption this blog post was designed to call out. Personally, and at a very high level professionally, I would point out that both Regnerus and Allen are not controlling for stability, financial security, job security, trauma and other factors that have a far larger impact rather than the sexual preferences of the parents.

So, with those methodological problems and my own personal preferences why would I recommend papers like this for research use? Because pointing out false assumptions at that level is the responsibility of other social science researchers and they can’t do that if their collections are hampered by ideologically driven curators. If I were to cave to my own personal preferences I would weaken the arguments and stunt the education of the kind of people I want to see well educated.

16 thoughts on “The one about high school graduation rates of children raised in LGBT homes

  1. First, you neglect to mention that Douglas Allan is on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an incredibly homophobic group that traffics in lies and pseudoscience about gay people. Allen was a major campaigner against gay marriage in Canada and has authored several dubious papers making claims about gay parents. He is a professor at a small conservative catholic college in Canada and really has no standing in the field. His studies have been rejected and criticized by several courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada.

    Second, the study suffers from the same definitional problems that Regnerus’ paper did – he uses census data based on children’s recollection of their parents sexual orientation and uses a dataset from a time prior to gay marriage being legal in Canada (2006 Census). He then compares high school drop out rates, which is an odd metric since the effect of having gay parents in 2006 would have very little causal effect (how long where the parents together? Were the children adopted? Were they children of straight marriages where one parent divorced when he or she came out ?) He makes no attempt to control for any of these variables because his goal is to try compare apples to oranges and smear gay parents.

    Third, the journal he published is crap to be honest. It has an impact factor of .708 which probably places it in the lower 10% of all journals in the field.

    You also fail to mention that the consensus research in all major fields – psychology, sociology, child development, demography, etc. all support the conclusion that there is no evidence that sexual orientation has any impact on child rearing. The major drivers of child outcomes are SES, class, and stability and involvement of their parents.

    • None of which I disagree with you on, but those are methodological problems that infect a lot of social science work. Better social science studies are the answer. Allen’s criticism of the weaknesses of social science research in the Huffington Post are accurate.

      If you take a look at some of my other posts, this blog is about the misuse of scientific research within science journalism or by the general public. It’s not designed to pull out the subtleties of the manipulation of statistics. Both Allen’s and Regnerus statistics say what they say, their results are descriptive of the specific data set chosen. But they’re used by campaigners on the anti-gay rights front as prescriptive for society at large.

      Part of the irony of this little exchange is Regnerus’ rampant hypocrisy in using Allen in the same way that his research is being misused by politicians elsewhere, which he has objected to loudly.

      Regardless of the methodological problems, both of these articles pass the minimum standards necessary to be a part of the academic discussion. However, I do agree that like much of the social science research out there they don’t say much more than what we already know.

      • Well, I think you are being incredibly naive about the motivations and ethics of the two “scholars” in question. There studies were conceived and funded as a part of a broader political and legal strategy to manufacture doubt as to the state of the social science regarding same sex parenting. Judge Walker’s decision in the Perry Prop 8 was shaped significantly by the expert testimony of various scientists and scholars in establishing findings of fact that militated against any rational basis for excluding same sex couples from marriage. The proponents of prop 8 were unable to present any credible counter witnesses and those that were proffered were either disqualified or withdrew after deposition and cross examination. In fact, Douglas Allen was one of those witnesses who was humiliated after a brutal deposition by David Boies. The Regnerus study was initiated by the Witherspoon Institute in the wake of the district court defeat for the express purpose of providing some peer reviewed science to use in the Supreme Court. Indeed, the very day after the article was published it was cited in appellate briefs in both the Perry case and in a district court case in Hawaii. Later FOIA records have shown that Regnerus provided advance copies of his study to Witherspoon, who forwarded it to the legal team to include in briefs before publication.

        My point is that even the assumption that the data is actually descriptive is highly suspect. Allen, like Regnerus, used questionable variable definitions and failed to adequately control for family instability and transitions.

        Allen actually footnoted an episode of Modern Family for the proposition that gay couples can’t properly model gender differences – he claimed the two men couldn’t give “girly” advice and had to rely on on the fictional Gloria to “mother” their daughter. I’m not kidding – its footnote 40. Need I say more?

        Finally, the conservative movement has often engaged in what Naomi Oreskes documented in her sociological study of climate change denial as Manufacturing Doubt. From tobacco litigation to climate change, there has been an attempt to cast doubt on otherwise settled scientific consensus as a political strategy. There is no difference here – there is an entire cottage industry of pseudoscience regarding sexual orientation – from Paul Cameron to George Rekers up through Regnerus and Allen.

      • None of which I disagree with, but as a librarian those kind of judgements are counter-productive. It would be against the best interests of my users to not have these kind of studies available, even if only as bad examples. This isn’t an example like the Yogic Flying example from the previous post which, if even collected, might be part of a 20th century American alternative religions collection. This is a larger problem in social science research that is beyond a collection development policy.

        Allen seems to be a decent economics professor who seems to be under the impression his economic modeling applies to sociology. The data he’s using exists, and the correlations exist within the scope where he has analyzed the data. The criticism of that is more properly within courses and within the pages of journals.

        Allen, like Regnerus, used questionable variable definitions and failed to adequately control for family instability and transitions.

        This is the very point I’m making with this post. Data -> Analysis -> Recommendations. They have a set of data. It’s not faked. Their analysis uses assumptions that fit within a set of research practices that are used elsewhere in social science research. Their recommendations however do not follow. As a librarian I’m primarily concerned with Data and Analysis.

        I’m going to turn this around. I’m arguing that the work meets minimum standards and has to be engaged with by researchers and students, but it’s use by politicians and the general public has been inappropriate. Are you arguing that these two researchers should be censored?

  2. On thing both studies do is compare groups of children raised by married parents with groups that are not universally married. Since there has not been time for children raised by married same sex parents to graduate high school a study that was trying to determine the effect of the sexes of the parents would have used a similarly comparison group of opposite sex parents composed of both married and cohabiting couples.

    Both this and the Regenerus study just tell us things we already knew – children from stable 2 parent homes do better than those that don’t. Its unfortunate the researchers didn’t try and compare groups with similar stable environments qualities if they were trying to determine the role of the sexes of the parents in the outcome.

    • I agree. This is why these studies are descriptive. They describe the particular data set used. This blog isn’t really here to ferret out anything but the most blatant misuse of statistics and only then by the media and the general public. Both of these papers meet minimum standards and fit within a larger conversation in the academy.

      • Actually, Allen is a joke and is not taken seriously by anyone outside of Catholic natural law circles. His anti-gay work is never published in serious journals and ever time his work is introduced in court it is disqualified.

        Regnerus was once taken seriously although his work has always been taken with a grain of salt. In his earlier work he was more objective and focused more on quantitative religious studies. However, his later work on marriage employed questionable theoretical economic theories of sexual selection that were seen as after the fact justifications for his gender essentialism. When he went full right wing crazy with his gay parenting study, he was roundly rebuked by social scientists (over 200 signed a letter protesting the flawed peer review and publication) and the ASA, APA, AMA, etc. all filed briefs in the Supreme Court that harshly criticised his methods and conclusions. He is basically a pariah in mainstream academia and seems to have gone the route of his mentor Robbie George and operates now primarily as a right wing polemicist.

    • Exactly, thank you.

  3. Regnerus is part of NOM’s evil “expert witness project,” the latest product of which is Douglas Allen’s bogus study about Canadian high school graduation rates for children alleged to have been raised by gay parents.

    NOM has sponsored anti-gay hate rallies where its chosen speakers yell through megaphones that homosexuals are “worthy to death.” The hate group appeals to antisemitism in the populace, when it perceives that doing so will further its anti-gay-rights goals. Internal NOM strategy documents released through court order showed that NOM was actively engaged in “driving a wedge” and “fanning hostility” between African-Americans and gay people. In an op-ed, the Newark Star Ledger called NOM’s strategies “sick beyond words.”

    Ergo, when Regnerus alleges to have done a study on “gay parenting” but then later confesses that he does not know about his survey respondents’ parents’ sexual orientation, it can not credibly be claimed that he has done a study on “gay parenting.” Throughout his paper, he inaccurately uses the labels “lesbian mother” and “gay father” — and he did that to fulfill the political gay-bashing purposes of the paper. Not a single one of his survey respondents can be said with any confidence to have been raised by a gay parent.

  4. You are dead wrong to allege that the Regnerus and Allen papers meet minimum standards for scholarly discourse. Though the Regnerus paper, combined with a paper by Loren Marks purports to overturn the scientific consensus on gay parenting, between the two papers not a single one of the peer reviewers is trained or experienced in the scientific study of gay people still less in the esoteric topic of gay parenting. All of the peer reviewers have some level of fiduciary conflict of interest with both Regnerus and his religious anti-gay bigot funders. This is anti-gay junk science deliberately perpetrated as anti-gay junk science. The lack of familiarity evidenced in the papers with ground rules for the scientific study of gay people is shocking. It is as though a family sociologist had endeavored to study Chinese families without knowing a single word of Chinese. Get a clue; you are behaving irresponsibly as a librarian. The corruption in the peer review of the Regnerus paper has been thoroughly documented. Regnerus’s funding agency representative W. Bradford Wilcox advised him in an e-mail, when they were collaborating on data analyses, that he should omit all abortion-related findings because “that would be too much of a red flag” that the paper was coming from a place of religious anti-gay bigotry. In the paper itself, Regnerus lies by saying that his funders played no role in his study design, data collection, data analyses, et cetera. If you present this work to readers without telling them that the paper includes what is well-documented as a lie, you are not behaving responsibly.

  5. The Douglas Allen study of Canadian children of gay/lesbian parents is worthless
    This is just a quick post to get down some of the obvious, fatal flaws in Douglas Allen’s new paper in the Review of Economics of the Household, “High school graduation rates among children of same-sex households.” (The article is paywalled, but since you’re a personal friend I will loan you my electronic copy.)

    The short story is Allen reports children of gay and lesbian couples are less likel to graduate high school. But you can’t use this kind of data to answer this kind of question. So the results in the paper are meaningless. Here are the notes behind that conclusion.

    Boost that sample

    Like Regnerus, Allen talks about the benefits of a big, random, national sample. In praising the study, Mark Regnerus calls the dataset “massive.” (Regnerus background here.) However, like Regnerus before him, Allen ends up with a tiny sample of people from gay- or lesbian-parent households, and makes bad decisions to increase its size.

    Allen says the law doesn’t permit him to release the sample size, but it’s a 20% file which should mean each respondent on average represents five people in the Canadian population. With a weighted population of gay-father kids of 423, and lesbian-mother kids of 969, that means Allen probably has about 85 gay-father kids and 194 lesbian-mother kids. I have no idea why these numbers are so low (Canada has 35 million people — almost the size or California — and homogamous marriage is legal there).

    But to make his sample even that big, Allen says he included all 17-22 year-olds who live with their parents. With weights, that represents 1.97 million people, or (by my calculation) 77% of the 2006 Canadian population ages 17-22. (That seems very high to me, since in 2006 only 57% of American 17-22 year-olds lived with their parents, but I don’t know what’s going on in Canada.)

    Graduation rate

    From the title through the end of the paper, Allen writes as if he were measuring the “graduation rate” of Canadian young adults. But that’s not the case. In Canada in 2006, 89% of people ages 25-34 had graduated high school (if I read their Census table right). In Allen’s sample, only 69% have graduated high school. Allen counts those in his sample who have graduated to calculate a graduation rate, but that’s not what it is, it’s the percentage of 17-22 year-olds (many of whom are still in high school) who have already graduated high school.

    Allen throws up a smokescreen by analyzing the odds that people in his sample are attending school — which 74% of them are — as if this is the selection problem. (This analysis adds nothing, because some of his sample are attending high school and some are attending college.)

    Who’s at home

    All this is setup for the elephant in the room: selection into the sample. Who is living at home? Allen writes, “Children over the age of 22 were dropped because of a likely selection bias in children who live at home well into adulthood.” Age 22? That’s where you start to have selection bias in who lives at home? And then he’s got one of those throw-away footnotes that work if you trust the researcher:

    There’s no reason to believe this selection bias would be correlated with family type, however. All regressions were run with various restrictions on the child’s age within the sample, including keeping everyone, and none of the gay or lesbian family results in the paper change, in terms of magnitudes or levels of significance, in an important way.

    What were the “various restrictions on the child’s age”? Unless he got the same result with just the 17-year-olds, I think we can stop reading.

    But what about “no reason to believe” the selection is correlated with family type? What drives the selection? There is no analysis comparing the people in his sample to the population of 17-22 year-olds who don’t live with their parents.

    Think about the population like this: Here are some possible scenarios for 17-22 year-olds. The “live at home” column represent the people in Allen’s sample; the “doesn’t live at home” column represents threats to the validity of his sample. If the distribution across these columns is correlated with family structure, the study is wrong. What are the odds?

    Live at home Doesn’t live at home
    High school dropout Happy and supportive family; or stuck at home with no exit plan Successfully employed and independent; or unsuccessful and miserably kicked out of the house; married or not.
    High school graduate In college and living with happy and supportive family; in college and stuck at home because can’t afford rent; not in college and living with happy and supportive family; or not in college and stuck at home because too poor to move out. Successfully employed and independent; independently poor and miserable (or married); successfully in college and living on parents’ money; in college but not supported by parents.
    I got an email from Kristi Williams, who suggested a hypothetical pattern in which gay and lesbian parents are more successful at launching their children from home after completing high school. In Allen’s analysis, that would be “troubling” evidence of a bad family outcome. That’s just one possible scenario, of course. But this problem alone completely invalidates the study, I believe. I can think of one other study that uses educational attainment among adults living with their parents to study high school dropout rates, but at least that paper included tests for differences between those living at home and not, and cautioned against generalizing to the non-living-at-home population. It’s just a bad idea unless you can solve that selection problem, and you probably can’t.

    Who raised them?

    That problem is so bad that you don’t need to worry about the problem of who raised these young adults, which is supposed to be the issue in the first place.

    They live with their parents. But for how long have they done that, and for how long have their parents been in gay or lesbian relationships? We can’t know. Allen controls for whether the child has moved in the last year or five years, but we don’t know if the parents moved with them. Controlling for whether they have moved doesn’t address this. A full 60% of the lesbian-mother kids and 39% of the gay-father kids have moved in the last five years, compared with just 24% of the different-sex-married-parent kids. Their life stories are in these mobility histories, and the paper can’t say anything about that.

    Interpreting the results

    The paper says the children of gay and lesbian parents are “65% as likely to graduate,” a number Regnerus repeats, and Allen repeated in an interview. That’s just preying on the public, who don’t understand that in odds ratios (which I’ve discussed this here), that number would be even more dramatic if the graduation rates of the two groups were 99 and 96 percent. There is no good way to describe odds ratios, really, but they are useful in statistics. Anyway, the paper does provide the marginal effects, which show that the children living with gay parents have graduated from high school at an adjusted predicted percentage 6 points lower than those living with married different-sex parents, that number for kids of lesbian parents — which is not statistically significant with controls added — is 9 percentage points. But it’s not a meaningful result anyway.

    Funny-not-funny aside

    The paper also splits the kids up by gender, and finds the worst “effects” are for girls living with gay dads. Since the analysis is all bogus, it doesn’t matter, but, in the interview he gave, Allen seems to forget that and think it’s the lesbians+daughter combination that’s worst, because he offers this “speculation” in answer to the question, “It’s particularly hard on girls, isn’t it?”:

    Indeed, mothers may provide some parenting services that a father cannot provide, and fathers may provide parenting services that mothers cannot. These services may be necessary for girls but not necessary for boys. For example, I’ve been told by medical people that when a biological father is present in the home, daughters begin menstruation at an older age. Later menstruation is likely correlated with delayed sexual activity, etc., and this may lead to a better likelihood of high school completion.

    Of course, girls in gay-father homes probably have a biological father in the home, which goes against his argument. Which is… really?

    Believe it or not, there is some evidence that girls living without their fathers hit puberty earlier, which may be a kind of stress response. By earlier, I mean one month earlier on average, or maybe two months (as recorded by a retrospective question asked to adults). And it is true that earlier puberty increases the odds that girls will not finish high school, but that result comes from bigger differences than a month or two, as far as I can tell. If this were a true driver of family-structure effects on girls, we would get at it from studies of single mothers, not lesbian couples anyway.

    But anyway, that’s neither here nor there in this study, which offers nothing of value.


    I am willing to believe anything, if it’s true, even if I wish it weren’t true. I try to watch out for how my biases might distort my research (which I think is good) or the research that I criticize that I think is bad. Don’t hate on the methods because you hate the conclusion, hate on the conclusion because the methods

    • I’ll repeat this again. I do not disagree with your analysis. However, if you wish to change my point of view on this you need to articulate why and how this kind of research should be removed from academic collections.

      • The fact that the paper’s author is a religious anti-gay bigot with a long and shameful record of lying to the public about what studies of gay people actually show should give you pause.

        In this specific case, the data aren’t available to the public, yet what he did was bad enough, characterizing the situation in Canada as though gay couples there had equality for as long as heterosexual ones and that therefore, his “research” could be conducted on an even footing between people raised by gay and by straight parents.

        All of this anti-gay research from Regnerus and Douglas Allen et al is part of the National Organization for Marriage’s “Expert Witness Project,” which strangely enough never sees the ‘expert witnesses” under oath in court. That alone should tell you something.

        If you want to believe that political gay bashers are turning out worthwhile science, that reflects on you. For the ASA’s latest take-down of this anti-gay junk science, go here:

      • Scott, I do not disagree with you. For emphasis, I do not disagree with you

        However, you are not reading my comments, nor do you seem to be grasping the point of this blog.

        If you cannot 1. Read the comments and respond to what I’m saying or 2. Grasp the point of this blog as others like Leo have I will start moderating your comments.

        These papers are being discussed within the academy. They have severe methodological problems, but those methodological problems are problems within a set of accepted parameters within economics and sociology.

        It would be counterproductive, unprofessional and unethical for a librarian to pre-emptively censor a paper or a project that fit within the accepted methodological practices of a field.

        So, I’m turning this question back to you. Have these authors been officially censured for research misconduct by their respective institutions like Mike Bellesides for Arming America?

  6. Without reading the study, I wonder how much of an impact the children’s background has on this. If you are comparing the children of a heterosexual couple who never divorces as your baseline, then most other families will fall short.

    How did the gay couple get these children? Did they take them from the foster care system? If so, how do these children fare compared to other foster care kids?

    Did they get them from a heterosexual marriage? If so, how do they compare to other children of divorce in step family situations?

    Does homophobia factor in? Are the children mistreated by the school, teachers, community and their peers because they have gay parents? I would imagine this would hurt more in conservative communities where antigay attitudes are more the norm.

    You cannot simply say that gays are worse parents if you do not take into account that more of their children are adopted, come from divorce and face discrimination against their family than your average child.

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