When I was still in search of a man I could introduce to my mother, a trawl through the introductory options came down to a lonely hearts box number or an impersonal computer printout through the post. Mary Balfour - proprietor of the highly successful heterosexual agency Drawing Down the Moon - is the brains behind Significant Others, so I was interested to hear her ideas, while remaining sceptical about a straight woman's ability to cater for a gay person's needs.
'Over the last 10 years we've had considerable success with putting people together,' says Mary. 'There's nothing mystical about it - if you put enough people with a common background together, some of them will stick. For Significant Others, we'll be drawing on our experience in the area we know best: professional people who are interested in making long-term relationships.'
Significant Others is based at the west London offices of Drawing Down the Moon, and Mary has selected staff with a special affinity for lesbian and gay clients. Jeff Kazimir, a practising psychotherapist who has, she says, been 'both gay and straight in the past and now I'm unaligned,' will lead the team. 'What we are offering - what makes us different - is that we're personal. We're organic. People can come in and talk to me on a monthly basis so we can adjust the way it works. I encourage clients to feed back, to keep me current on what worked and what didn't. They like the fact that someone knows who they are, and who they've met. They really feel they're getting their money's worth.'
A potential client will first have a telephone interview, during which they try to establish, says Mary, 'whether they're our kind of person'. If they decide to progress, the prospective client has a face-to-face interview. Clients fill out a cleverly worded questionnaire ('Are political orientations important to you? If so, do you want to say anything about your own?') and supply a photograph. They then look through the files of other clients and make a selection of as many as they wish. Clients selected then have the choice of accepting or declining an introduction.
My friend Sally, a drop-dead gorgeous dyke with a luxury lifestyle but no one to come home to, is cautiously enthusiastic about the venture. 'But I just can't be identified as a lesbian; it would be too compromising in my business.' Confidentiality is often important for lesbians and gay men and one that Significant Others is well aware of. It has a confidential file, and clients can elect not to have their file open to others. 'Sometimes people start off in confidential,' says Jeff. 'Then after a while, when they see that the milieu is okay, they 'come out' as it were, within the confines of the organisation.'
Drawing Down the Moon is known for turning down potential clients for a variety of reasons, and Significant Others will be no less exclusive. Most often, the reason why someone is turned away is because they're still carrying unresolved baggage. 'Sometimes people come to us too soon after the break- up of a relationship, when they're very needy,' explains Mary, 'but what they really need is space.
'Sometimes we suggest they come back in a few months, or we have steered people towards counselling if it seems appropriate.' 'Part of my job as interviewer,' adds Jeff, 'is to see that you are emotionally equipped for meeting new people, and that our service is going to add to your life, not make you terrified.'
The quality of service the agency offers does not come cheap. In comparison with Drawing Down the Moon's annual fee of pounds 625, Significant Others is being introduced in the first year at pounds 425. 'We're not going to make a profit in the first few months,' says Mary. 'We can't - our costs are high, mainly employing enough staff to ensure personal attention, and advertising to increase our client base.'
The first year will actually be 15 months, since Mary is including an extra three months as an introductory period while the organisation gears up and develops its client pool. 'We hate turning people away for financial reasons,' says Jeff, 'so we let people pay over two or three months - four even.'
Both women agree that the greatest satisfaction of the job is when two people meet and go 'on hold'. This means their membership is frozen while the happy couple find out more about each other. Going on hold suspends the client's membership, which means that a one- year membership can, in effect, be spread out over as much as two years, putting a different perspective on the pounds 425 fee.
Because they acknowledge that the lesbian and gay market will be different to the heterosexual one, they are keeping an open mind on what makes a suitable client. 'We recently had our first staff meeting which included one of our gay male interviewers,' says Mary.
'It was very interesting. We can't make assumptions that what suits the straight community will suit Significant Others. We have to take things slowly and learn from clients.' 'For example,' adds Jeff, 'if a woman approaches us, I have to learn to keep my trap shut, not say, 'Well, I think you ought to have a makeover.' We won't know what we're talking about.'
Listening and observing was how the idea of Significant Others was born. Jeff realised that there was more interest in her work from gay friends. 'It seems that where gay relationships are successful, they are being even more successful than straight ones, because people have to work so much harder on what relationships are about. I would go to parties and people would say, 'Why don't you start one for us?' '
'Then we had a staff meeting,' continues Mary, 'and when I asked which direction people thought we should go, everyone said, spontaneously, that we needed to include lesbian and gay people. There has to be a market out there. It seems so obvious. I just can't think why somebody hasn't done it before.'
Significant Others: 071-938 4400
Matthew Campling is advice columnist for Boyz newspaper and Gay Times
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