Profiles on the Right: Mark Regnerus

About Cole Parke

Mark Regnerus

Mark Regnerus


As certain queer identities gain mainstream acceptance, and as same-sex marriage initiatives pass in a growing number of states, anti-LGBTQ opponents seek to justify their support for discriminatory policies by citing “objective, factual, scientific research.” Why? As they say on the internet, #BecauseScience.

In 2012, Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, published the “New Family Structures Study” in Social Science Research journal. His report claimed that children of same-sex parents faced substantial disadvantages compared to those of different-sex parents.

So why should we prohibit same-sex marriage?  Well, #BecauseScience, of course.

Unfortunately for Regnerus, though, the “science” of his study has proven to be bogus. Since being published (the timing of its release cleverly choreographed to influence the Supreme Court as it considered DOMA in the United State v. Windsor case), the study has received a tremendous amount of professional criticism, including a document denouncing the study which was signed by 200 of Regnerus’ fellow researchers and scholars, and the launch of an internal ethics investigation at the University of Texas at Austin.  Moreover, an internal audit revealed that the journal’s standard peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with the study.

For every example of why Regnerus’ study should have never been published (and there are many), there is an equal supply of credible research demonstrating no scientific basis for believing that gays and lesbians are unfit parents based on sexual orientation, including a new study released this week. Perhaps the study’s most significant flaw is that of his highly touted sample size of 3,000, only two of the participants studied were raised by same-sex couples for the entirety of their childhood.

In spite of all this, Regnerus’ work continues to be used as evidence against LGBTQ rights. Capitalizing on his newfound conservative celebrity status, Regnerus has revved up his activist efforts. In October of 2013, he testified before the Hawaii State Legislature in opposition to the bill to legalize same-sex marriage (which ultimately passed). Earlier in March, Regnerus testified as a witness for the State of Michigan, which is currently defending its ban on same-sex marriage. Additionally, lawmakers, lawyers, and special interest groups have cited the study in legislative battles in Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Utah.

Perhaps of greater concern, Regnerus’ “research” has become a tool for injustice beyond U.S. borders, too. In Russia, lawmakers used the report to promote and defend the infamous anti-propaganda law and restrictions on same-sex parenting. After quoting extensively from Regnerus’ study, a journalist in Zambia concluded, “A society that honors sodomy must drink from this barren and sterile brew in which boys will not grow into men and girls will not grow into women. The Zambia that would come out of this will not contain itself and the socio-cultural confusion would simply be unspeakable.” In a Ukrainian newspaper, Regnerus was interviewed and pushed his belief in the “tragic consequences” of gay parenting.

Additionally, earlier works by Regnerus have also been cited by the World Congress of Families, an Illinois-based umbrella organization for the Religious Right that has played a significant role in the recent surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Russia, as well as in broader attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) around the world. And last September, the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) which gained notoriety when it defended California’s Proposition 8 in court, included Regnerus on a panel discussion at the United Nations aimed at injecting anti-LGBTQ and anti-SRHR ideologies into the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The scope of Regnerus’ international reach is significant – before signing the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, Uganda President Yuweri Museveni insisted on having scientific input on the matter. The report commissioned drew from a large pool of research from accredited sources including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and even Political Research Associates, all of which refuted Museveni’s ultimate conclusion that homosexuality was “learnt and could be unlearnt.”

Paul Bangirana, a clinical psychologist at Makerere University in Kampala and a member of the “Ministerial Scientific Committee on Homosexuality in the Ministry of Health,” was appalled: “They misquoted our report. The report does not state anywhere that homosexuality is not genetic, and we did not say that it could be unlearnt.” Two of the report’s other contributors have since joined Bangirana’s protest and resigned over the misuse and misrepresentation of their findings.

Misguided conclusions informed more by anti-LGBTQ ideologies than science is what makes this sort of anti-logic possible. And with the help of a few friends with deep pockets, those fabrications can go a long way.

Driving the national and international spread of this deeply flawed attack on LGBTQ families is the New Jersey-based Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank that aims to “enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” In addition to funding Regnerus’ research (a fact that should lead any rational observer to seriously question any validity to the study) , all three of the study’s respondents also had ties to the Witherspoon Institute–as revealed by the journal’s subsequent audit.

Furthermore, Witherspoon’s support for Regnerus is only one part of a much broader, right-wing campaign to use “research” to push back against same-sex marriage. According to the New York Times, “In meetings hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington in late 2010, opponents of same-sex marriage discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children . . . One result was the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant and a sociologist at the University of Texas.”

Regnerus has also recently joined forces with the new Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, already being referred to as the “Witherspoon Institute South” thank to its close ties to the older organization’s founders, Robert P. George (author of The Manhattan Declaration) and Luis Tellez. The Austin Institute might also be thought of as the new Family Research Institute (Paul Cameron’s long-discredited and much-ridiculed launching pad for anti-LGBTQ junk science).

But the propagation of faulty scientific claims doesn’t come without a cost. The University of Texas has begun to distance itself from Regnerus, noting that “the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus’ work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that his study bears no resemblance to actual research or the truth, Regnerus shows no signs of backing down, Regnerus shows no signs of backing down. In an article written for his alma mater, Trinity Christian College, he explained, “I’ve noticed that some Christian professors see a disconnect between their faith and their profession. I believe that if your faith matters, it should inform what you teach and what you research.”

Next Profile arrow

And in this case, the value of honest, responsible, factual research lost out . . . #BecauseFaith.


Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.