First published in Between the Lines on June 14, 2007
When I heard that someone was suing eHarmony for its refusal to provide dating services for same-sex couples, I winced.
It’s not that I approve of their policy (I don’t). It’s not even that I think that their policy, while wrongheaded, is in fact legal (I’ll leave that question to those who know California anti-discrimination law).
It’s that the last thing the gay-rights movement needs is a frivolous lawsuit.
Some background: eHarmony is an online matching service founded by psychologist Neil Clark Warren (he’s the smiling white-haired guy on the commercials). Users of the site must qualify for membership by taking a patented personality test, which creates a profile based on Dr. Warren’s “29 areas of compatibility.” But first they must indicate whether they are a “man seeking a woman” or a “woman seeking a man.”
That last part troubled California resident Linda Carlson, who contacted the company to request a “woman seeking woman” option. They refused, and Carlson sued. Her lawyers are seeking to make this a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all prospective gay and lesbian clients.
Although eHarmony’s founder is an evangelical Christian with ties to Focus on the Family, the company claims to have no objection to gays and lesbians per se: it’s just that Dr. Warren’s system (which is classified and proprietary) doesn’t apply to them.
According to a company statement, eHarmony’s research “has been based on traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages….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.”
Let’s all acknowledge that this rationale is probably a load of hooey. After all, how different can the needs and interests of same-sex couples be? Are you a smoker or non-smoker? Prefer nights-on-the-town or walks-on-the-beach? Love or hate American Idol? Etc.
(On the other hand, if I were designing a personality test to match same-sex couples, I might add some specialized questions: Madonna or Maria Callas? Volvo or Subaru? Mid-century modern or rococo? You get the idea.)
Whatever the reason, eHarmony offers a limited service, one that Linda Carlson doesn’t want: it matches people to opposite-sex partners. Should it be forced by law to match people to same-sex partners?
Before you answer, consider the implications: if eHarmony is forced to offer services to gay couples, should Gay.com be forced to offer services to men seeking women (or vice versa)? Should JDate be forced to offer services to Gentiles? Should kosher delis be forced to serve ham and cheese? Where do we draw the line?
One might argue that eHarmony, unlike JDate or Gay.com, does not advertise itself as a “niche” service. But one doubts that Carlson and her attorneys would be satisfied if eHarmony simply tweaked their marketing to prominently feature the word “heterosexual.” After all, they are not suing eHarmony for false advertising; they are suing it for discrimination.
Okay, but what if a company wanted to offer dating services only for whites seeking whites? What if they (unconvincingly) claimed that, while they had nothing against black people, they simply didn’t have the research to support matching services for blacks?
This is the hard question, and it deserves serious consideration. There are times when discrimination is so ugly and pervasive that the law ought to step in. Traditional racial discrimination was certainly of that level, as is much discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Keep in mind, however, that we’re not talking about discrimination in employment, or housing, or transportation. We’re not even talking about the Boy Scouts. We are talking about a DATING SERVICE. There are plenty of such services that Linda Carlson could use (Gay.com, Yahoo.com, and Match.com, to name a few), not to mention better uses of the judicial system and movement resources.
Back to the hard question: if a company wanted to offer a service only for whites seeking whites—or blacks seeking blacks, or Asians seeking Asians, or what have you—I might question their motives. If I found them suspect (which they might not be: after all, there are legitimate niche dating services), I would publicly criticize them. If the situation were bad enough, I might support a boycott on the part of advertisers and prospective clients. But I would not advocate government interference.
Carlson’s lawyer Todd Schneider claims the lawsuit is about “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.” Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that the government should force Neil Clark Warren, or anyone else, to assist them.