Beginning with an opinion piece on a local website, news of our research on child health in same-sex families has spread around the globe. And with it has come some criticism. But much of the time I am left wondering if those critics have taken the time to look beyond the headlines and try to place this work in its proper context.
Many of these headlines have read along the lines of “same-sex couples raise healthier and happier kids than heterosexual couples.” (See The Advocate's “STUDY: Gay Parents Have Happy, Healthy Kids.”) As a researcher I have no control over how news organizations choose to report my work. In trying to present it in the most straightforward fashion, it can sometimes get a little skewed in its interpretation.
What our results actually show is that children with at least one same-sex-attracted parent score better on a couple of measures (one around general health and one around how families get along, rather than happiness per se) than average population data, and that stigma is an issue.
The first line of attack relates to the use of the term “same-sex couples.” The resulting headlines are understandable given that both academic and journalistic writing on the issue has fallen into using “same-sex families” or “same-sex parent families” as shorthand to represent a wide range of family contexts. This is sometimes simplified further, perhaps due to the heavy discussion of same-sex marriage, to give us same-sex couples,” and occasionally we see the even more reductive phrase “gay parents.”
Unfortunately, some have chosen this slight simplification of the narrative as a way to criticize our work, failing to read beyond such headlines. However, anyone who has given due consideration to the work overall will have considered our previously published work and background papers, which include both the study protocol and a piece in the Medical Journal of Australia titled “What Makes a Same-Sex Parented Family?” Here we go into detail for all to read on the range of family structures that make up same-sex-parent families. Critics should really be doing their research!
The argument runs something like this: The study did not look at same-sex couple families, it looked at same-sex-attracted parents, and therefore does not tell us anything about the ability of gay and lesbian couples to raise children. But it does amuse me to see such an argument coming from conservatives in an attempt to undermine our work.
In reality, 70 percent of the children in our sample have been raised from birth by their current same-sex couple parents, while over 90 percent are currently being raised by a same-sex couple. And if single parents were excluded from the analysis, I would expect the results to perhaps favor same-sex families further, given the decades of research suggesting that children with two parents do particularly well. We should embrace and celebrate the diversity of the families that took part in our research. They should not be a cause for criticism.
Another concern of conservative commentators is our use of a convenience sample. We have never shied away from the fact that the participants in our study volunteered to take part. Mark Regnerus suggests that this is akin to choosing children from evangelical Sunday schools in wealthy suburbs to understand child health in evangelical Christian families. Perhaps if we had only captured families from gay Pride events in progressive cities the analogy would hold true, but our methodology was developed to attract families from many different contexts.
Not only were families who are engaged with the gay community sought, but also families from remote parts of Australia, often with less interest in wider GLBTI activities. This methodology is clearly described in the study protocol, and it is also reflected on in a recently published paper about recruiting same-sex families. Again I ask if the critics have done their homework.
The third line of attack is more personal. It would be naive to think that my interest in the subject of child health in same-sex families is not informed, at least in part, by the fact that I am a gay man raising children. But it does not mean that I embarked on the work with a predetermined outcome in mind, as has been suggested. Like any parent, I want the best for my kids. If evidence suggests that growing up with same-sex parents might have a negative impact on their health, I would want to know so that ways can be sought to ameliorate such outcomes. In fact our work (and that which has gone before) suggests that the stigma that same-sex families experience does have a detrimental effect. Yes, that’s right, the same stigma that our critics are often responsible for.
There are many family contexts where children could have better health outcomes. This often relates to poverty, limited education, and even racial discrimination. But no one, including myself, would suggest that these should be reasons to invalidate such families. It seems odd to me that same-sex families are the one case where such validation is sought. My work is not about advocating for the right of same-sex-attracted people to parent, it is about ensuring that their children have every opportunity in life.
To criticize me as a gay man is a weak attempt to invalidate the work. It is also insulting to me, my colleagues, and the university. This work is set within the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at Australia’s leading university. This dedicated team of child health researchers is internationally renowned, widely published across many areas of child health, and led by professor Elizabeth Waters, a heterosexual parent (if people believe such things are of importance) with millions of dollars worth of competitive grants to her name. In a team of over 30 leading researchers, I am the only gay parent. To suggest that in this context I could or even would bring personal bias to the work is almost laughable. Had the critics looked beyond my name on the paper they would have known all this as well.
Even so, I am left to ask, if I conducted work on child health in aboriginal communities, would it be biased because I am not aboriginal? What if I conducted work on child health in the U.K. and Australia — how would I ever navigate the minefield of the fact that I have both British and Australian citizenship? Should I be biased in favor of the Brits, seeing as that is where I grew up, or should I place my bias in favor of the Aussies, as this is where my own kids will spend their formative years? It is such a dilemma.
But more important perhaps is the transparency that we have brought to this work at all stages, from the peer-reviewed, competitive government scholarship I earned to fund the work to the published study protocol and background papers. From the willingness to engage openly in public discussion, to the publication of results in a peer reviewed journal. This work has been open to examination from the outset, if people cared to look at it.
As with any research, this study has its limitations, and we have been clear about these all the way through, but it is important for these limitations to be given proper consideration. If you are going to criticize the work, do your research, place it in its proper context, and realize that gay people will continue to raise children regardless. I seek only to provide a little more information to a growing body of work that I hope gives all children the opportunities they deserve.
SIMON CROUCH, Ph.D., is a researcher at the University of Melbourne and the lead investigator of the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families.