On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

by Eric Daryl Meyer

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.