Straight Lab: The Washington Post’s Date Lab Struggles to Make Gay Dates
On Aug. 1, The Washington Post Magazine’s weekly blind date feature, Date Lab, will print what has become a once-yearly ritual: The gay date.
Every Sunday, the magazine writes up the adventures of two single Washingtonians set up by the Post; after the date, both spill the night’s details to a reporter, judging their companions on everything from body weight to tolerance for “that’s what she said” jokes. Since launching in 2006, Date Lab has run nearly 200 heterosexual encounters. But it’s only managed to set up four same-sex couples in as many years—and one dater was a repeat.
The Aug. 1 item will be a milestone for Date Lab editor Amanda McGrath—her first same-sex write-up since assuming the feature in May 2009. “I heard stories from the previous editor about how difficult it was, and I thought, ‘This won’t be a problem for me. It will be so easy,” says McGrath. Nope: Date Lab’s last gay date hit newsstands on Jan. 20, 2008. It ended with “a little bit of an air hug.”
According to a recent survey, nearly 7 percent of D.C. residents identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Which you’d think would mean The Post wouldn’t go two years between gay dates. Apparently, in order to qualify as a same-sex match on Date Lab, being gay isn’t enough. Asked in an online chat in 2006 why Date Lab mostly experimented with straight romance, then-editor Sandy M. Fernandez said it was a matter of math: “We just need to get in enough applicants that it isn’t one of those soap opera dates, where if you see two gay or Latino or African American characters, they’re inevitably going to hook up.” Four years later, the feature’s applicants remain prohibitively hetero—and, according to The Post, that’s why the people who make it into print do, too.
“We honestly try with every couple we send out to make a good match, to find a pair that will hit it off,” says McGrath, 27. But “it’s really hard to find people who seem compatible when you have such a limited pool to work with.”
Obviously, in the grand scheme of injustices, the paucity of gay Date Labbers ranks pretty low. But the lack of diversity—in a feature that so clearly strives for it in other ways—does stand out. After all, plenty of heterosexual couples have been matched based on glancing similarities: “She roasts; he bakes”; “He paints, she pots”; “He’s tall; she’s tall”; “She’s tall; he’s very tall.” The paper has matched three pairs based on a shared interest in distance running (“Have these two marathoners run into romance?”; “Two runners finally cross paths. Can they go the distance?”; “Can two marathoners go the distance?”). Some daters don’t even have that much in common. Past unifying principles include “They Were Adopted And Keep Losing Debit Cards. Will They Hang Onto Each Other?” and “They Both Agree: She’s ‘Not Hideous.’” In 2008, a monkey from Rockville tried its hand at making a match. Both daters rated the date a “5.”
So with a track record like that, why not “He’s gay; he’s gay”?
The Post’s answer: Date Lab’s shallow same-sex pool. Of the 3,300 potential daters who have submitted applications since 2007, only 84 identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Fifty-one are men; 33 are women. Since Date Lab keeps potential lovebirds on file for years, some once-promising applicants wind up in committed relationships or rethink their interest in romantic exhibitionism—particularly if they’re not out to all their friends and family who may happen to pick up the Post. From there, start factoring in age (daters range from their 20s to their 60s), interests, personality, and appearance, and you’ve got a pretty skimpy selection of gay and lesbian Washingtonians.