As a gay man, Eric McKinley felt disenfranchised by online dating service eHarmony’s policy of matching only heterosexual couples. Founded in 2000 by an evangelical Christian psychologist who says he’s counseled thousands of couples, every one of them straight, eHarmony is famous for its 400-question application, which seeks to pair like-minded singles for marriage and to weed out the ones who aren’t ready to walk that path.Though originally targeted at Christians, eHarmony now places more emphasis on values than on faith. The site boasts that it serves “a vast array of ethnicities, ages and religions.” But you have to get past the first screen, which requires you to register as either “man seeking a woman” or “woman seeking a man.”
That left out McKinley, who found the experience “hurtful.” So he sued. In a settlement announced last week, eHarmony agreed to set up a separate site for gay matches. It will also pay McKinley $5,000 and provide free six-month subscriptions for the first 10,000 gay members.
Talk about hollow triumphs. Would you want to put your love life in the hands of an organization that thinks your lifestyle is icky? eHarmony has said it excludes gays because it doesn’t know what makes them tick. “I don’t know what the dynamics are there,” founder Neil Clark Warren said in a 2005 interview. “We think the principles probably are different.”
eHarmony’s notoriously thorough screening process, based on research on heterosexual couples, matches members according to 29 “dimensions,” such as autonomy, communications style and conflict resolution. eHarmony says 236 marriages a day can be traced to connections made on the site.
It’s not surprising that gays as well as straights would find eHarmony’s pitch appealing. Heterosexuals aren’t the only ones who aspire to committed, compatible relationships. But since when do Americans have the right to force a company to do business their way? Should restaurants be required to cater to vegan and kosher diets? Should department stores have to stock petite sizes?
When it comes to online dating services, the pool of choices is vast. There are sites for gays, for straights, for both. There are sites that target smokers, Ivy Leaguers, nerds, plus-size women, dwarfs and men with mullets. There are sites for those who want to skip the romance/compatibility step and go straight to marriage (or sex). It appears there’s a site for everyone. Maybe several.
Three years ago, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing rejected a similar lawsuit for that very reason, saying eHarmony wasn’t required to provide services that are available elsewhere. It also said the state’s civil rights act “does not mandate a result whereby a business offers the same services to every customer.”
New Jersey’s attorney general saw things differently, finding probable cause that eHarmony had violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The company caved, though its settlement acknowledges no wrongdoing.
Whether the folks at eHarmony don’t know enough about same-sex relationships to broker good matches or just don’t want to know, McKinley is now free to sign up. But why would he want to?