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Amelie Hopkins outside her new Adams Morgan home

When Amelie Hopkins started searching for a new group house on Craigslist, she’d look for different “coding” in the advertisements.

“Progressive” and “communal” and “Bravo”—as in the television network known for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—she took as good signals.

“We like to watch lots of ESPN” gave her pause, a certain indicator of high-testosterone, insensitive guys’ guys.

Hopkins, 22, is a lesbian, with a girlfriend in Alexandria she sees a couple times a week. When looking for a living space, she wanted to find housemates—gay or straight—who’d accept her sexual orientation and relationship with minimal awkwardness.

And she did: After a delicate dance with potential roommates—she didn’t want to reveal too much too soon, but she did want to be sure she would be accepted—Hopkins now lives in a four-bedroom place in Adams Morgan.

For gay people seeking housing on Craigslist and elsewhere on the Internet, the situation can be fraught. Some people listing empty rooms stipulate that only gays apply. “Gay preferred” is another common welcome mat. On the flip side, Hopkins saw one ad for “straight only,” as she first recounted on the Web site the New Gay, where she is a blogger.

But given fair-housing laws, that raises the question: What kind of language is legal?

Take a seat first: Even experts at the National Fair Housing Alliance had to debate the nuances of the matter for two hours before responding to Washington City Paper’s inquiry, said the group’s president, Shanna Smith.

“We understand the discrimination that gays and lesbians experience,” says Smith. The dilemma toggles between feeling rejected because people immediately assume you’re gay and feeling “compelled to tell somebody who you are, so they think you’re not hiding something,” says Smith.

After its discussion, the alliance deferred to the law’s usual interpretation—no ad should show “a limitation to the ordinary reader.” In other words, seeking only someone who is “gay-friendly” is discriminatory.

“If a provider puts in ‘gay-friendly,’ then we end up having to substitute in other protective classes,” says Smith. “So what would happen if they said ‘Christian-friendly,’ ‘Latino-friendly,’ ‘Muslim-friendly,’ ‘white-friendly,’ you know?”

Of course, that’s only her group’s position; perhaps a D.C. jury would disagree.
Craigslist dominates the group housing ad market, but there haven’t been many high-profile fair housing cases against the online site. And those seeking redress haven’t been very successful, says Smith.

In 2006, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a case contending that Craigslist breached the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin when selling or renting housing. The committee collected some 140 examples of ads it said showed prejudice. Some were extremely offensive (“Non-Women of Color NEED NOT APPLY”); others were more benign (“Perfect place for city single.”)

The group asked Craigslist to implement screening software to stop discriminatory postings, require employees to go through Fair Housing training, and “delete accounts and prevent website access to individuals who post or attempt to post discriminatory housing advertisements on its website.”

When the case went to appeal, Judge Frank Easterbrook argued that Craigslist was essentially too big and too influential—the site has more than 30 million notices monthly—to have its business model adjusted for the Fair Housing Act.

Easterbrook wrote: “An online service could hire a staff to vet the postings, but that would be expensive and may well be futile: if postings had to be reviewed before being put online, long delay could make the service much less useful, and if the vetting came only after the material was online the buyers and sellers might already have made their deals.”

Easterbrook decided that Craigslist could not be held responsible for discrimination on its Web site. It did not encourage discrimination, after all. It had merely created a space for it to fester. In contrast, Roommates.com in 2008 was found in violation of the Fair Housing Act because it asked people to answer questions about sexual orientation, children, and family status while filling out a profile. By deliberately pressing users to mark their preferences and state their identity, this Web site had breached the law.

Still, many people—either through code words or more direct language—do the same on Craigslist. The site’s D.C. housing listings are full of discriminatory language related to age, gender, and education level.

One of the most prevalent forms of discrimination is women requesting only female roommates, presumably because they’re not comfortable living with unfamiliar men. A typical example: “You: A considerate, friendly and active FEMALE looking for a delightful living space.”

And in that scenario, not being straight could help. While looking for a place to live in the summer of 2007, Keli Anaya decided to use his sexual orientation—he is gay—to his advantage. He saw a group-house advertisement posted by a few women, who were specifically looking for other female roommates. Anaya wrote the group and said, “I’m gay, so you really have nothing to worry about.…” They met and asked him to move in.

The best way for ad-placers to find compatible housemates without crossing the discrimination line may just be to talk about who they are—their hobbies, social life, TV preferences, and interests—not what they’re looking for. Hopkins figured if her potential roommates mentioned Bravo, or the liberal Jon Stewart, that meant they would be more likely to accept her sexual orientation. “Bravo is a really gay-friendly network.…The Daily Show was a definite ‘all right,’” she says. (Turns out she was wrong to assume ESPN-watching necessarily meant more; one of her new male roommates is a big sports fan, and they get along great.)

Also, the onus is on the housing provider to not discriminate. People looking for rooms can be much more open with their preferences, since they’re not in the position of power, says the Fair Housing Alliance’s Smith.

If there’s a model Craigslister out there, it’s Jordan Smith (no relation), who reached accidental perfection in his recent post. Smith, a straight 28-year-old, just advertised for a spot in his two-bedroom Dupont apartment. Last year, when he first rented out the space, he didn’t write anything about sexual preference in his Craigslist post, and it drew a diverse crowd. Smith ended up living with a gay man, and it worked out well. This year, he tweaked his ad’s language to clearly reflect his openness to all kinds of people: “Can live with straight, gay, bi, trans, black, white, brown, blue, don’t matter to me.”

However, if you’re worried about offending purple or green folks, there’s always the usual catch-all: The National Fair Housing Alliance recommends “Equal Housing Opportunity—All welcome.”

This story will appear in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper. Image by Darrow Montgomery.