Despite New Gay Site, eHarmony Can’t Catch a Break

by Kilian Melloy
EDGE Staff Reporter
Friday April 3, 2009

When straights-only dating site eHarmony settled a suit with the state of New Jersey by agreeing to start up Compatible Partners, a sister site for gays, the solution seemed Solomonic to some (everyone got what they wanted) and like a sell-out to others (anti-gay Christians chafed that their religious liberties were being trampled).

But what the move hasn't done is clear up eHarmony's legal problems: a second suit charges that by relegating gay dating services to a separate site, eHarmony is still discriminating.

A class action suit in California that names both the site and its founder charges that creating Compatible Partners was a form of "separate but equal" treatment for gays.

A press release from law firm Schneider Wallace Cottrell Brayton Konecky LLP posted at Social Media Portal on March 31 offered details on the suit.

The release said that the suit is moving forward, with a Superior Court Judge for the state of California, Victoria Chaney, having given the go-ahead for potential participants in the suit to be notified.

eHarmony was launched in 2000 by Dr. Neil Clark Warren as a research-based means of helping men and women connect with partners through insights gleaned from Dr. Warren's research into heterosexual marital relationships.

Compatible Partners draws on that same body of knowledge, and a disclaimer at the site informs users that the means employed to match prospective partners has not been modified to accommodate additional research involving same-sex couples.

In other words, Compatible Partners uses the same theories and assumptions about who will be a good fit with whom for gays as eHarmony uses for straights.

Because eHarmony seeks to help heterosexual people find long-term, marriageable mates, the evangelical community embraced the site, with anti-gay group Focus on the Family and its founder Dr. James Dobson promoting the site on its radio broadcasts.

Dr. Warren and Dr. Dobson went their separate ways after a few years, with Dr. Warren saying that he wanted to serve a broad range of people--all ethnicities, religions, political affiliations, and creeds.

But that wish for broad-spectrum service did not include gays and lesbians. As Dr. Warren put it later, his experience was entirely with straight couples; he'd never worked with gay or lesbian couples.

A suit brought against the site in New Jersey led to the creation of Compatible Partners, which, like eHarmony, makes it plain to users that its purpose is to help gay singles find "meaningful" relationships intended to endure for the long haul.

Indeed, users of the site agree not to use Compatible Partners if they are currently married or in a domestic partnership or civil union. Compatible Partners is not about hookups: it's about life partnerships.

That's a laudable goal, even if the site's creation came about as the direct result of legal pressure. But it's not enough for some: a service for one demographic that is categorically denied to another demographic constitutes discrimination, the argument seemingly says, and a parallel service intended for that excluded group is an exercise in "separate but equal."

Plaintiffs in the class action suit are being represented by Schneider Wallace Cottrell Brayton Konecky LLP's Joshua Konecky, who was quoted in the press release as saying, "Having been sued for discrimination, eHarmony's response is not to stop discriminating but to instead create another business.

"Nothing in the law or logic allows companies to operate a business that discriminates so long as they open up another one that does not, nor does California equal rights law indulge the practice of separate but equal."

Said another plaintiffs' attorney, Jeremy Pasternak, "To stop discriminating and comply with the law, the defendants must allow people seeking a same-sex relationship to access all the services and features of, while on, not a separate site."

The release noted that a trial in the suit is scheduled to commence in October of this year.

For some among the religious right, eHarmony's agreement with the state of New Jersey to create a new site for gay users constituted a surrender to the demands of gay "activists" determined to "criminalize Christianity."

Anti-gay site Americans for Truth About Homosexuality characterized the settlement as eHarmony "capitulating to gay bullies," and wondered, "Will eHarmony's sellout inspire other acts of Christian and corporate cowardice?"

Casting the issue in terms of freedom to worship, site founder Pete LaBarbera wrote about how " and its founder, Neil Clark Warren, failed the test in defending their (and our) religious liberties when they caved in to a homosexual activist's harassment lawsuit last year," and went on to say, "Now I hope that pays a price for its capitulation, which hopefully will not spawn other acts of corporate cowardice."

LaBarbera directed persons of faith looking for a life partner to head to Christian Caf?>, which describes itself as "a comfortable relaxing online Cafe where Christian singles connect with one other."

Christian Caf? addresses eHarmony at its site, dismissing the self-proclaimed "number one trusted" dating site as "a secular dating site that serves Christians and non-Christians alike.

"When matches are sent on eHarmony one can select to have Christian matches only," the text at Christian Caf? reads; "however for most users it requires communication before determining how much faith plays a part in a persons life.

"Furthermore, eHarmony supports gay and lesbian matching (via a Web site they own)," the site adds.

Christian Caf? goes on to tout its own Christians-only policies. "By comparison, is a service only for Christian singles," reads the text.

"These singles have faith as a priority in their life and are only seeking someone who shares their religious beliefs," the site's text continues.

LaBarbera instructed readers to "take a good look at the eHarmony's new court-induced, Bible-defying creation... the moral equivalent of a pro-life group (after settling in court with a radical feminist) creating a website telling women and girls where to go to get an abortion."

Added LaBarbera, "Let's cut away the legal rationalizations and get to the nub of it: how could a Christian man allow the use of his 'Christian' company--founded with the help of Dr. James Dobson and people of faith--to promote an anti-Christian venture facilitating deviant 'relationships' based on immoral behavior clearly condemned in God's Word?

"Wouldn't that be worth fighting to the death against?"

LaBarbera's post continued, adding that, "[O]ne thing is certain: the same homosexual and liberal activists who routinely malign our sincerely-held, Biblical beliefs (or Judeo-Christian morality) as 'hateful, bigoted and homophobic' will continue to seek to criminalize 'anti-gay' actions and speech.

"Which is to say, criminalize Christianity."

There is disagreement within the GLBT community, as well, and concern that forcing straights-only sites to include gays could end up criminalizing the gays-only aspect of a number of sites used by GLBTs.

While some gays and lesbians may take umbrage at eHarmony's creation of a separate site, rather than an inclusion of gays and lesbians in eHarmony's originally existing service, the idea of a new lawsuit against the company strikes some gay pundits as self-defeating in the long term.

An April 1 Queerty article read, "Yesterday when we reported the launch of Compatible Partners, some accused us of 'promoting a bigoted company.' This, when the only reason eHarmony launched this site is because gays were furious over their opposite-sex only approach to online dating.

"Meanwhile, the California class action lawsuit argues eHarmony must provide both opposite- and same-sex dating on its flagship site.

"It's a reasonable demand--in theory," the Queerty article read, adding, "Until you think about [same-sex dating site] Should that site be ordered by a court to offer opposite-sex dating" in its turn?

For that matter, the Queerty article continued, "Should and adam4adam be told by a judge they must appeal to straight couples too?"

The Queerty article broadened the scope of its theoretical blowback, noting, " ...bills itself as 'Gay and Lesbian Social Networking, Dating, Chat and News.' Where is the class action lawsuit from heterosexuals demanding it set up, right on the homepage, another section for heterosexual social networking, dating, and news?"

Queerty posited that excluding users based on their sexuality was an inherent part of the service offered by such sites. "Are these sites violating anti-discrimination laws because they discriminate based on sexual orientation? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT THEY DO."

In a manner similar to the religious right's lament that eHarmony had "capitulated," Queerty stated that, "eHarmony caved to the outcry of gays wanting them to open their service to our community."

Such results could have unintended consequences, added Queerty, warning, "But unless we're willing to tell dating sites for our own kind that they must, under threat of litigation, be forced to open themselves up to straight men and women, the matter might be better left untouched."

If Queerty's prognostications were to be borne out by events, Facebook-type social networking sites for gays might also be affected.

As reported previously at EDGE such sites are already appearing. MisterMeetMister was conceived as a "full service" site for gay men, where hookups are not the only possibility; events, online socializing, and perhaps even connections leading to longer-term prospects were all envisioned by the site's founders.

Lisa Cotoggio was quoted in the EDGE article as saying, "We think we found a niche that hasn't been offered before."

Added Cotoggio, "I know there's Manhunt, but we see ourselves as moving in the opposite direction. We aim at those singles that find social networking more challenging. Who would like to meet people of a certain age and criteria with similar interests. Who are interested in attending quality, upscale events with other affluent men."

Cotoggio sought to express the site's goal by defining it as being, in essence, the anti-Manhunt: "The best way to put it is we are not a hook-up site. We are offering a place where our members can feel comfortable, can chat, can make friends, or even look for a long-term relationship."

The site's founders didn't need any legal action to be brought against them to start planning for a parallel site designed to meet the needs of a group not catered to at MisterMeetMister: if all goes well, the site will be joined in short order by MissMeetMiss.

Unless, perhaps, such specialization is found to be illegal. Depending on how the further legal proceedings against eHarmony are resolved, gays and lesbians, too, may find that they are asked to open up their specialized dating services to a wider pool than they may necessarily wish to invite--or find inviting.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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