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Readers’ editor: Homophobia and the BMJ

21 Aug, 13 | by BMJ Group

David Payne In December 2012 Doug Kamerow asked in his regular BMJ column if gay marriage improves health.

Eight months later the article attracted its first response. Gregory Gardner, a GP in the West Midlands, wanted to know why Kamerow had not mentioned the impact of same sex marriage on the health and wellbeing of children. Dr Gardner’s response cited the 2012 findings from the New Family Structures Study in the Elsevier journal Social Science Research by Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Austin, Texas.

Four days later John Chilton responded to Gardner. Regnerus’ study, he said, had been “thoroughly discredited.” Mr Chilton, an economist from Virginia,  also emailed Kamerow about the BMJ’s screening process for rapid responses.

I contacted Chilton to explain that we screen for profanities, breaches of patient confidentiality, and defamation, and also choose not to publish if we feel a response does not add to the debate and the same point has been made already.

Were we right to publish Dr Gardner’s response? If we’d said no, would we have been censoring him or stifling debate? On this occasion the decision to publish was ultimately taken by editor in chief Fiona Godlee, who alerted two gay colleagues (myself included) of her decision to do so.

Dr Gardner contacted her when we suggested some amendments to an earlier version of his response.

She told him publishing the response meant we would be letting the BMJ’s community of readers decide what to think.

Now the article has attracted a third response, from former Student BMJ editor Balaji Ravichandran, who accuses the journal of “shameful homophobia” in choosing to publish the first response.

He says: “I suspect the editors indulged in those two fallacious platitudes, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘editorial balance,’ when they decided to publish the response. But, when they did so, I wonder if they had asked themselves whether a rapid response which purported to argue the ‘Bell Curve Theory’ of racial intelligence, or one that suggested ‘intelligent design’ as the grounds for withholding palliative care, might have been published on the same grounds.”

Rapid responses are post publication peer review, and Chilton’s response was, in essence, a review of Dr Gardner’s response (so was Ravichandran’s). Regnerus’s NFFS study claims to “clearly reveal” that “children appear most apt to succeed well as adults—on multiple counts and across a variety of domains—when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”

Andrew Ferguson’s feature in the Weekly Standard article, The perils of politically incorrect academic research, published in July 2012, describes Regnerus as a “bull in the china shop of mainstream sociology.” His study was funded by the socially conservative Witherspoon Institute to the tune of $700,000. Liberal groups were asked to contribute also, to “guard against charges of ideological trimming,” but in vain. Regnerus told Ferguson that the Witherspoon Institute had nothing to do with the study’s design or implementation, or how the findings were interpreted.

The alleged flaws in Regnerus’ study are well documented in Ferguson’s article and elsewhere. Of the original pool of 15,000 rsepondents, only two young adults reported living with their gay parents for their entire childhood. Respondents were not asked to give their parents’ sexual orientation. Instead they were asked if they knew their parents had at any point engaged in homsexual activity. Nor were they asked if their parents identified themselves as gay.

But Ferguson says Regnerus’ critics (including three colleagues in his sociology department and more than 200 co-signatories to a letter to the editor of Social Science Research) ignore the study’s “unique strengths,” including the size and randomness of its sample, and a pledge to make all his data, “which straddles the full ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic range of gay America,” digitally available.

Kamerow didn’t ask in his column if same sex marriage was good for the health of the children of gay parents. He pointed to evidence that extending the “conjugal condition” to same sex couples might confer benefits – better healthcare insurance, decreased healthcare visits and costs, and better mental health among mid-life and older gay male couples.

Finally, Chilton’s email to Kamerow linked to a blog by Dr Gardner on the Anglican Mainstream website. Gardner was described as being from the BMJ, presumably because his blog was an extract of his unsolicited response which we had chosen to publish. I contacted the site and suggested an alernative wording. This has now been amended.

See also:

David Payne is editor, bmj.com, and readers’ editor

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