Once viewed as unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community, popular online matchmaker eHarmony has gone through a queer-friendly rebranding of late.
The site, which boasts more than 2 million messages a week, began offering same-sex matches in 2019. This winter, it launched its first queer-inclusive commercial, featuring a lesbian couple.
The ad, “I Scream,” is part of eHarmony’s current “Real Love” campaign and opens on a female couple in their kitchen. In between kisses, one woman tastes her partner’s cooking and makes it clear she’s not a fan. The pair wind up on the couch enjoying a pint of ice cream and going in for another peck.
Gareth Mandel, chief operating officer at eHarmony, told NBC News it was important that “our ad campaigns, our platform, and everything else we do accurately reflect what real love, real dating and real relationships look like both today and always.”
“We’ve spent substantial time recently bringing our entire team together to formalize a company mission and values statement that reflects who we are today,” he said, “Explicitly reflecting a brand and a workplace that strives to be safe, inclusive and welcoming to each and every member of our community.”
The ad, and the “Real Love” campaign in general, are part of a sitewide revamp to move the company away from its conservative origins – but not everyone is on board with the company’s inclusive turn.
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Launched in 2000 by Neil Clark Warren and his son-in-law, Greg Forgatch, eHarmony was different from most dating sites: Rather than allow members to pore through hundreds of profiles, it paired them based on a lengthy compatibility quiz.
Publicly, Warren – a clinical psychologist, seminary professor and devout Christian – claimed that was because he had no expertise when it came to gay dating. But in 2005, before same-sex marriage was recognized in most states, he told USA Today, “We don’t really want to participate in something that’s illegal.”
In an interview with the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family in 2004, Warren said he had to be diplomatic about how he discussed the site’s lack of same-sex options.
“Cities like San Francisco, Chicago or New York – they could shut us down so fast. We don’t want to make enemies out of them,” Warren said. “But at the same time, I take a real strong stand against same-sex marriage anywhere that I can comment on it.”
In eHarmony’s early years, Warren frequently plugged the site on the radio program of evangelical author James Dobson, who co-founded Focus on the Family. The anti-LGBTQ organization also published several of Warren’s self-help books.
As eHarmony continued to grow, though, Warren distanced himself from the group. In 2005, he ended his appearances on Dobson’s show and bought the publishing rights to his books.
After settling a discrimination lawsuit in New Jersey in 2008, eHarmony agreed to launch Compatible Partners, a e-sex matches. It was an imperfect solution the Los Angeles Times referred to as a “shotgun wedding.” There was no link to Compatible Partners on the main eHarmony site, and those interested in both men and women had to buy two subscriptions, according to Mashable. It took another discrimination suit, this one in California, for the two sites to be reciprocal.
Warren retired from running eHarmony in 2007 but returned as chief executive in 2012. In a 2013 interview with CNBC, he lamented that his company was forced to “put up a same-sex site” and said gay aged our company.”
“We literally had to hire guards to protect our lives, because the people were so hurt and angry with us,” he said at the time, because “Christian people” felt the company’s gay dating site was “a violation to scripture.”
Warren also suggested to CNBC that eHarmony invest $10 million to “figure out” homosexuality, which he called “at the very best … a painful way for a lot of people to have to live.”
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Warren stepped down as CEO again in 2016 and is no longer involved with the company, according to Mandel. Since 2019, eHarmony has been led by a three-person team – Mandel, Chief Customer Care Officer Carlos Robles and Chief Financial Officer Stefan Schulze.
CompatiblePartners started redirecting to the main eHarmony site in . Mandel said the response has been largely positive, and LGBTQ usership has grown 109 percent year-over-year.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken several actions to become more of the company that we want to be,” he said. “One of our main objectives is to ensure we’re always striving to create a culture that’s diverse, inclusive and welcoming to all of our members and our employees. Our commitment to make sure our platform reflects that is a priority for us as a company.”
eHarmony’s benefits package for 2021 offers coverage for gender-affirming surgery, as well as equal parental leave, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, and including adoptive and foster parents.
“While we’re proud of the changes we’ve made to our platform, we recognize that we have work left to do, and are committed to finding ways to be more inclusive to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations across all facets of what we do,” Mandel said.
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While many have applauded eHarmony’s “LGBTQ epiphany,” the company’s “Real Love” campaign has put it in the crosshairs of the right-wing Christian group One Million Moms. The group, which is part of the conservative American Family Association, launched a petition ” commercial as an “attempt to normalize and glorify the LGBTQ lifestyle,” which it calls “unnatural and immoral.”
“This eHarmony ad brainwashes children and adults by desensitizing them and convincing them that homosexuality is natural,” a statement on the One Million Moms website reads, “when in reality it is an unnatural love that is forbidden by Scripture just like love rooted in adultery is forbidden.”
“I am extremely disappointed that eHarmony is refusing to remain neutral in the cultural war by pushing the LGBTQ agenda on families,” it reads in part.
The organization often opposes LGBTQ-inclusive programming and advertising. In October, it protested an Uber Eats commercial featuring Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and nonbinary “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness. In 2019, it targeted Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” for including a scene of two moms dropping their child off at school, and it called on Hallmark Channel to remove an ad for the wedding planning website Zola featuring a same-sex wedding.
The impact of OMM’s campaigns, though, is questionable at best: ”Toy Story 4” earned more than $1 billion worldwide at the box office without removing the offending scene; Uber Eats is still running the Jonathan Van Ness commercial; and after briefly pulling the Zola ad, Hallmark reinstated it and apologized for the “hurt and disappointment it has unintentionally caused.”