From Scratch: G-Romance



Meeting your romantic match is tough enough – especially if said person is your anatomical synonym. In the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metro area, the 2005 American Community Survey estimated 3 percent of the population, or 98,402 persons, were lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB). More interesting still is that only 8,794 couples were included in that total. This mismatch isn't unique to Detroit; in fact, cursory back-of-the-hand figures show that total LGB populations in metro areas nationwide are roughly ten times the number of couples. As the stats go, then, for millions of people it seems to be damn hard to meet your same-sex one-and-only.

George Skaff, owner and founder of G-Romance, a LGBTQ matchmaking site, is addressing this disconnect. And he's taking it just a bit further.

"This is the only website that I know of that's an all-inclusive gay website, meaning it's not just for gay men and lesbians, it's for the whole LGBTQ community," Skaff says. "If, say, a transgendered individual wanted to meet someone, you couldn't do that on eHarmony, obviously, but on my website you can. In fact, intersex people are also included." Intersex, by the way, is the PC term for hermaphrodites. (Add Jeffrey Eugenides's epic gem, Middlesex – a coming-of-age story of a girl who morphs into a boy – to your reading list. Plus it's set in Detroit and Grosse Pointe.)

If you're just looking for text-a-date or some hoochie-coo, stick to sex sites or the backs of certain magazines. G-Romance is for those who want exclusivity, the same set of eyes to gaze into in the morning. Bop-n-rollers need not register.  The serious ones are "… so tired of the bars, and in this economy, of course more people are staying at home and it's harder for them to meet people. It's really going to be helping the community," he vows.

And that community is growing larger, more inclusive, and more PC. Let's explain. Most have heard of the LGBT acronym – now, it's LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer). Why is the "queer" piece broken out? Isn't it a catch-all (even derogatory) term for gay or lesbian? Within the community, it's understood that queer is the same as genderqueer, Skaff says. Genderqueer gets its own designation because while those persons are outwardly either male or female, they perceive themselves as both man and woman, neither man nor woman – a third gender, if you will
– or as genderless. Sounds complicated, doesn't it?

"As you know, we have binary, the male and the female," Skaff explains. "If you draw a line between the two and you choose something in between, that is the type of individual that a genderqueer is looking for. It does not matter to them whether you are male or female." To the genderqueer looking for a mate, gender is secondary. The POV is simply, "…'you are human' ".  One celebrity who identifies herself as such is comedian Margaret Cho.

Leveling the playing field

Skaff, a former family practice physician who's also dabbled in insurance and started wine importer Laguna Spirits, ruminated for years about doing something to accommodate these preferences. eHarmony, the straight Christian matchmaking site, gave him a kick start. He was dismayed that gays were excluded. "I was not upset at eHarmony, but upset at the fact there was nothing out there that gay people as a whole could identify with and feel comfortable… I was riled up, I guess, is a nice way of putting it."

He put his money where his mouth was and after two years of effort, launched G-Romance in December 2009. Within the first four days of going live, the site had 16,000 unique hits, and within two-and-a-half weeks, over 300,000 more.

"Financially it was just totally draining. I was not expecting it to be this expensive, but it was…. I don't regret anything. I'm glad that it's up and I'm glad that things are happening the way they are." Skaff declines to be too specific on start-up costs, but will say that the fees alone for one of the best virtual property attorneys in the country ran to $20,000. He trademarked the logo and the "G-Romance" and "Younique Matchmaking" monikers.

He hired a psychiatrist to devise the profiling questions and one of the top graphic designers in the country, Chicago area-based Sparc, Inc., to design the site. The site's appearance garnered praise, in no small part becau
se the photos were top-dollar. "I need more pictures, but right now money is not flowing," he says. He wants to depict transsexuals, bisexuals, transvestites, and more racial diversity.

And sooner rather than later, Skaff will need to hire profile screeners.
"I can't have people who are going to put pictures of pedophilia, or 'Yes, this is the person I just chopped up today!' " he says. Right now, he's the screener, de-bugger, and marketer – the point man. "I'm basically every hat you can think of."

His biggest challenge was writing all the website content, from the main page to subscriber emails, and marrying the contents with the functionality.  "I'm on basically seven days a week, all day," he says. "I feel like I'm incarcerated in my own home. I do come out every once in a while to go to the store, but now it's not easy."

Define yourself

For potential members, the most important part of the profile is the ten psychological questions devised by a psychiatrist that deal with whom you are and who you are looking for, Skaff explains. The non-optional questions are provocative, but not cumbersome, he says. Example: If you were an animal, which one would you be? Choose: snake, rabbit, tiger, or elephant. Additional optional character questions range from hair color to demeanor to social orientation to smoking to language preferences. Either percentages or points are awarded to every answer, and members are notified when there is at least a 51 percent match with another person.

"If you're honest about it, you can meet someone that you like. Many people, I guess, are kind of shy, or not forthright with their answers.
They'll disguise themselves. And that's not what this site is for. If you're truly interested in a long-term relationship, you'll take a chance and say OK, I'm going to put my picture up there."

The site's limiting factor, he concedes, is the inability of individuals to search independently. 
They must wait until there's a fit. "So that kind of is not in the gay community's mentality because there's never been anything like this," Skaff says. On other dating sites, you can hurry up and hook up, all on your own. But without the benefit of psychological profiling, you're more likely to smooch frogs or blow half your paycheck on dinner with Wrongo Dongo.

Many are very hesitant because they don't want to show their faces online. "They think it's like the other sites where everyone can check who you are and that's not possible on my site," he assures. Instead, "You have to trust that this profile you're putting on is going to be matched to a profile that the other person's going to be putting on and you have the ability to contact them. The big key here is population. If I have a large population of people using this site, it's going to do well," Skaff points out. "The more people that know about this site and do join, the better it is."

So far revenues are "not much to talk of" as most are promotional. The business is too much in its infancy to talk growth trends. "Now you're pushing it!" he jokes. Those who signed up before the site launched were given free six-month memberships. The new deal is $20 for six months. Bigger, more narrowly tailored sites offering gay matchmaking, such as chemistry.com and mypartner.com, cost $160 and $144, respectively, for six months (dig hard to find the pricing). He hasn't yet heard whet
her G-Romance connections have resulted in marriages or commitments, but every day more people join. And to be fair, the site has been live for barely over four months. There's a big contingent from Chicago, but distant shores are represented: Bhutan, Australia, and the Virgin Islands.

One option worth mentioning is tagged the "Queer Query". Members can consult with a licensed counselor with 30 years of experience. Rachel Crandall, a transsexual who started Transgender Michigan in 1997 and also works on the national hotline with the Affirmations center in Ferndale, handles the queries. "She has the ability to relate to many people," Skaff says. "You can ask her any questions and it's free to members."

Promo time

Now Skaff is focused on a multi-pronged ad campaign. He's papered local gay bars with fliers. He emailed Oprah and Ellen De Generes and even heard back from Elton John's team. There's the Facebook fan page and a YouTube video coming soon.  He's looking at online magazines and Edge Media, a gay online publication with over 700,000 subscribers in 16 cities. Edge is looking to expand into Detroit, he says. He's also queried Between the Lines, the local gay mag.

And then there's the spring/summer festival circuit. He'll be at the International Mr. Leather venue in Chicago and at gay pride fests in Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Lansing. While vital for marketing, the high booth fees can be unwarranted. "I can tell you in comparison, which is really kind of ironic because it reflects the mentality of Detroiters, Gay Pride [Motor City Pride] in Ferndale, to get a booth there costs close to $850 for two days. Ferndale [gets] maybe 80-100,000 people, maybe. Market Days in Chicago, [which delivers] close to 300,000 people has similar pricing. You kind of wonder why Detroiters feel you have to pay more for a venue which is not as well-known."

What about an investor to boost the budget? "I'm not going to say no. Yes!" he hastens. He has an investor agreement ready to go, and "I am open for that, but again, I'm not going to hand over the company to that individual."

Next up is translation of the site into Spanish, German, and French by year-end. He'd also like to add a community feel with an events page for each major cit
y, covering everything from gay pride festivals to international transgender day visibility happenings.

His advice to any entrepreneur? Believe in what you're doing. "When I first started, I was like a horse with side blinders. I was charging. I felt so passionate about this. I believed in it, and I still do, whole-heartedly, that this will succeed and it's going to do something good for the community."

"I'm out there," he insists. "I'm trying to go to all the gay communities like Affirmations and Triangle and tell them, 'This is for us. And this is a gay-owned and operated company and it's based here in the Detroit area.' "



Tanya Muzumdar is the perfect match. She is also a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Metromode. Her previous article was Step Inside Breco Interiors.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Photos:

Tom and David

George Skaff, owner and founder of G-Romance

G-romance appeals to a wider gay community

Tom and David sing a duet

Togetherness

George and David