e-Harmony: Gays & Lesbians Need Not Apply
You've seen those e-Harmony ads -- the ones that promise to match you with the right partner for life. But as it turns out, gays and lesbians need not apply.
"I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." Groucho Marx is credited with that deliciously bitchy, supremely ironic quip; but for San-Francisco based lesbian Linda Carlson, it’s no laughing matter.
In early 2007, Carlson attempted to join eHarmony.com -- one of America’s most visible and successful online dating venues -- but was unable to make a love connection when she discovered the site only provides heterosexual-friendly search options. Men seeking men and women seeking women, it seems, were not welcome (to say nothing of bisexuals or the transgendered, which were off their radar to the point of stealthy non-existence).
Rebuffed after sending a letter of concern, Carlson pleaded her case to the media with an eye towards the courts (describing her experience as "hurtful and disappointing"). But why would anyone grouse about an organization that doesn’t cater to your preferences when its customer base is so ill-suited to your needs? It’s a bit like suing the manufacturer of a waffle iron for not providing the proper tools with which one could, if so inclined, exercise their right to make pancakes. Do we really need to clog up our court system when the marketplace is flooded with viable alternatives? Wouldn’t Ms. Carlson be happier plumbing the depths of Lesbotronics.com instead of casting her net on a site that caters to dreary, vanilla, marriage-minded and family-friendly straights?
Perhaps; but that doesn’t negate the fact that she’s been denied an opportunity to participate.
One of Carlson’s legal representatives, Todd Michael Schneider, characterized the lawsuit as being "about changing the landscape and making a statement out there that gay people, just like heterosexuals, have the right and desire to meet other people with whom they can fall in love."
David Bernstein, writing for and ranting on The Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a statement whose blend of ignorance and irony would do Groucho proud: "eHarmony does not technically prevent gays and lesbians from using its services; rather, it provides services for people looking for partners of the opposite sex. Assumedly, any self-identified homosexual who decided to look for an opposite sex partner would be able to use eHarmony’s services."
Before the legal questions are further explored, however, let’s have a look at the site Carlson wanted to spend her rainbow dollars on.
Take the eHarmony.com Test!
Despite leaving numerous voice mail messages, eHarmony.com has, as the old saying goes, failed to respond to our repeated requests for an interview. Fortunately, text copied directly from their site provides more than enough rope for detractors, skeptics and fans of doublespeak.
Launched in 2000, eHarmony.com was founded by Dr. Neil Clark Warren -- whom the site describes as a "best-selling author and clinical psychiatrist ... one of America’s most well known relationship experts." Others have described him -- somewhat less generously and perhaps more accurately -- as a conservative evangelical Christian who recently disassociated himself from James Dobson and the anti-gay organization Focus on the Family.
Warren’s controversial system was developed "through years of research, to match couples based on traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages." -- thus providing justification for the exclusion of LGBTs. In its initial response to the Carlson flap, eHarmony stated "Nothing precludes us from providing same-sex matching in the future. It’s just not a service we offer now based upon the research we have conducted."
This brings to mind a tantalizing scenario in which, were they to broaden their statistical horizons, eHarmony’s number crunchers would burst into flames as they crossed the border into that den of liberal sin and legalized same sex marriage known as Massachusetts.
First time visitors to the site are informed that "One of the requirements for successful matching is that participants fall within certain defined profiles. We sometimes choose not to provide services rather than risk an uncertain match." As a result, eHarmony issues the upfront disclaimer that this event occurs "for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service." That’s led to complaints by everybody from LGBTs to legally separated heterosexuals to height-challenged males.
Every gay man should go through the eHarmony application process, if only for the sheer entertainment value of experiencing the questions -- which are glaringly obvious carrots, dangled in an effort to snare marriage-minded straights. When I logged on and took their survey, I was rejected thusly: "Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with who you would best be matched -- We hope you understand, and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time."
Why? Could it be that I emphasized the importance of sex and downplayed religion, family and cuddling? Apparently, these preferences sent eHarmony’s creepy software program into a royal tizzy! Check out the laundry list of red flags adjectives in this compilation of Words That Describe You: "Skeptical, Uncompromising, Frank, Shrewd, Realistic." Curiously, I’m also described as "Adaptable, Receptive, Engaged, Casual, and Reflective."
They reassured me that "In some ways, you’ve got the best of emotional worlds. . .you are sometimes steady and sometimes responsive." Still, it felt like getting a flattering compliment and a scar-leaving bitch slap in the same sentence -- from a computer software program that peered into my psyche and returned with a deeply insightful middle of the road analysis! The lesson learned: Just as surely as its gatekeeping software ferrets out the randy, independent minded and relationship-phobic, it also green lights love-hungry, marriage-minded singles willing to somewhat alter their hopes & dreams in order to find a partner. Our sweet revenge may come as one in ten of these Warren-sanctioned relationships lead to marriages that produce queer offspring.
California, The Courts and Civil Rights
Joshua Konecky, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiff and plaintiff class; a partner in the law firm of Schneider & Wallace, notes that Linda Carlson is not involved in the case against eHarmony (filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court on May 31, 2007). Instead, there are two other name plaintiffs that are seeking to represent the class action: Nate Cardin and Gwen Obie.
On the suit’s current status, Konecky says: "The plaintiffs have filed their motion; the court needs to decide officially if it is to be deemed a class action. There’s a hearing set to decide that issue on June 13, 2008. It involves one simple discriminatory and unlawful policy that applies to every person who would be in this class; that is, to say we’re not going to provide you our service if you are gay and lesbian."
Konecky notes the case, and its arguments, are unique to the state in which it’s being filed (they claim eHarmony violates California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discriminating based on sexual orientation). Konecky: "The case is a California wide case. The only laws we are pursuing in this particular case are the California civil rights laws. What we’re hoping is that eHarmony will get the message and change their business practices in this respect."
As for the how they might be interpreted as violating both the letter and the spirit of the law, Konecky points out that eHarmony is unique in their "straightforward policy that they are not going to provide their service to anyone who is gay or lesbian. They seem to have a particular world view and want to exclude a lot of people -- eHarmony is very up front that it is anti-gay. They may not say it in a commercial (the ones with that feature the avuncular eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren (pictured), but it’s clear that at this point they are intentionally refusing to provide their service to people based on sexual orientation."
In terms of seeking to bring litigation to a business that is not exclusive to California or based within its physical borders, Konecky sees no difference that the company in question does its business in cyberspace: "In terms of equal opportunity under the law, in the same way that a restaurant that is open to the pubic has to serve all, it’s the same thing."
Just as people can choose to physically walk into a place of business which they are going to patronize, "the Unruh Civil Rights Act has a specific provision in it which says that if you are a California business establishment open to the public, you have to provide your goods, services and accommodations fully and equally to everybody in the public regardless of their race, sex, gender or sexual orientation. It is unlawful to deny full and equal accommodations."
Konecky is optimistic: "We are in a day and age where legislatures recognize that gays and lesbians are a traditionally discriminated against group that are deserving of equal protection under the law."
But would a California court victory against eHarmony open the floodgates for litigation against sites offering exclusive services to lesbians or gays? Phil Henricks, Director of Marketing for the mega-gay site Manhunt.com says "I’m against discrimination in any form." but admits that "at the same time, Manhunt does not allow women to have profiles."
Henricks had better be on guard for the wrath of Ross Kaminsky -- who, writing on RealClearPolitics.com, says "The biggest problem with gay activism is that they want to be treated as special or as victims when it suits them, and as ’just like anybody else’ when it suits them, Could you imagine the outcry from gays if someone tried to force a gay website to provide dating services for heterosexuals?"
Kaminsky might be unpleasantly surprised to find LGBTs surprisingly accommodating should that day arrive. An informal pole of my gay friends (many whom were admittedly drunk at the time) revealed that not a single one of them minded the thought of logging on to FeyFistingFriends.com only to see photos of respectable, chaste, young heterosexual couples taken on the campus of Southern Baptist University. In fact, most of us thought it would be a refreshingly inclusive hoot that wouldn’t impact our chances of connecting in the least. As for that day when eHarmony demonstrates a similarly liberal attitude towards the full spectrum of sexual expression, Konecky is pessimistic that change will come unprompted: "We’ve made several overtures to them before and after the case was filed. They refused."
Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Gay Match!
If your blood has reached the boiling point by now, consider that eHarmony is, in many respects, an aberration. Many "mainstream" dating sites allow for same-sex matching as well as options for bisexuals and the transgendered (Yahoo! Personals and Craigslist are virtual rainbows of fruit flavor). Allison Clark, Match.com spokesperson and Mandy Ginsberg, VP and General Manager of their sister site Chemistry.com, discuss their long-standing spirit of inclusiveness.
Clark: "Since Match.com was first launched in 1995, the site has always accepted all people from every walk of life -- regardless of sexual orientation." Of Match.com’s fifteen million participants, seven percent are gay or lesbian. "Match.com welcomes all members of the LGBT community on our website," Clark continued. "We also encourage each and every member of Match.com to be honest and represent themselves appropriately about who they are and what they’re looking for."
Ginsberg cites the fact that at Chemistry.com, "Ten percent of our site is gay and lesbian," while emphasizing their research is showing "similar trends across the hetero and gay populations. The one commonality is people are committed to finding a serious, lasting relationship."
Chemistry.com’s inclusive nature recently came to light in a high profile ad campaign that poked fun at eHarmony.
Ginsberg: "About a year and a half ago, we heard from people who were rejected from sites because they were looking for same sex relationships." That inspired them to launch the "Come As You Are" (aka "Rejected by eHarmony") ad campaign, which continues to be a visible presence on LGBT web sites. The campaign, which "playfully satirizes the exclusionary nature of eHarmony by depicting men and women who wonder aloud why they have been rejected by this site" hit a nerve among queer consumers and media watchdogs.
Ginsberg justifiably gushes: "What was so shocking to me was in my years of marketing, I’ve never gone through a national campaign with people thanking us for exposing the practices of other businesses." The campaign has been nominated for a GLAAD award in the electronic advertising category (specifically, for their "Nope, Still Gay" TV ad).
Ginsberg: "For us, companies should be judged by their practices, not just their products. We believe in being very transparent, and this attitude has resonated."