In the early 1990s, gay and lesbian professionals in commercial real estate formed a professional networking group to help each other find jobs. But you could say the group was in the closet.
That’s because it wasn’t until years later that it actually named itself — as the Gay Real Estate Group, or GREG — outing itself in the process.
“GREG wasn’t called GREG until [relatively recently]. It didn’t have a name; it was just a group,” said Mitch Draizin, president of the Midtown-based investment firm Longview Capital Advisors. “It’s not a big deal to be gay in the real estate business anymore.”
On the surface, examples abound of real estate players who publicly identify as gay or lesbian — from Douglas Elliman power broker Fredrik Eklund posting photos of his husband and their newborn twins on social media to Sorgente Group’s Veronica Mainetti lighting up her iconic Flatiron Building with the colors of the pride flag.
But it’s impossible to quantify just how many members of the community exist in the industry. Unlike women (whose names and photos obviously often give away their sex) and minorities (who can often be identified in photos on company websites), the same is not true for the gay and lesbian population.
And there seems to be more reticence about discussing sexuality in connection with the workplace than there is with gender or race discrimination.
While progress has clearly been made since those early-1990s days — not long after AIDS began tearing through the gay community — companies have adopted more inclusive policies.
In addition, LGBT sources told The Real Deal that individuals aren’t held back by the same kinds of systemic barriers that women and minorities face.
Still, it’s not as though homophobia is nonexistent in real estate. And some said they still struggle to get benefits at work. (A 2016 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that while 94 percent of respondents said their companies offered health care coverage for opposite-sex spouses, 83 percent said the same coverage was offered to same-sex couples.)
And at least on the residential side, it seems that more brokers are out and open than in the commercial sector — but that could be because residential agents are far more active on social media as a part of their own branding and marketing strategies.
In addition, there is still a lack of awareness sometimes among co-workers, who often assume someone is heterosexual or who might make an insensitive offhand remark.
“People often will ask me about my husband. And I don’t have a husband; I have a wife,” said Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, president of Stribling & Associates, which her mother founded in 1980.
She said that while she considers the industry inclusive, there is room to improve, particularly when it comes to gender awareness and sensitivity.
“I’m very involved in the LGBT nonprofit world, so I believe you never make an assumption about whether someone’s gay or straight or bi or trans. Everyone has their own experience,” she said, noting that she grew up surrounded by successful family friends from the LGBT community.
Mainetti said it’s been an evolution. “I lived for far too long being suppressed that when I made the decision to start working in the male-dominated field of real estate, I promised not to ever compromise or adapt myself, but instead embrace my gender and sexual orientation proudly,” she said via email.
Nonetheless, she noted that it doesn’t play a big part in her work life.
“Separating myself as a woman, or as a member of the LBGTQ community, or in any other exclusionary faction, for me, seems to be counterproductive to moving forward and simply focusing on the work itself,” she said.
“I made a conscious decision a very long time ago that I refused to be labeled or pigeonholed in any type of group which ultimately ends up pitting ‘us’ against ‘them,’” she added.
Many who talked to TRD said advancing the cause today is less about whether LGBT professionals face discrimination on an individual level at work — though that’s clearly important. Rather, it’s more about which companies are making institutional changes and adopting the most progressive policies.
“There would have been a time when you looked for whether same-sex partners are covered as an indication or a signal of whether it’s an inclusive environment,” said Sam Chandan, head of New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, whose husband is an academic at Columbia University. “Now it’s probably flipped to the other side, where you may flag an organization that didn’t.”
In November, the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, published its Corporate Equality Index, which ranked nearly 950 of the largest U.S. companies based on things like whether they offer equal benefits for spouses and partners and if they support employee-run diversity groups.
While a number of real estate firms did not participate — Equity Residential, Vornado Realty Trust, Boston Properties, General Growth Properties and Simon Property Group, to name a few — the ones that did logged strong scores.
On the commercial side, for example, CBRE, JLL and Lendlease landed perfect 100s. On the residential side, Redfin logged a 95, while Realogy got an 85.
Nonetheless, the issue of equality in the workplace is far from settled.
While a U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage, in December the court let stand a lower court decision that gay spouses may not be entitled to government-subsidized workplace benefits.
For some, there’s still trepidation about the consequences — whether actual or perceived — of being out in the workplace.
Others are not only out, but make their LGBT identity part of their business.
Developer Ian Reisner ran the gay-friendly Out Hotel at 510 West 42nd Street before he sold the ground lease last year for $24 million to Merchants Hospitality, which is repositioning it as a Playboy Supper Club. And BFC Partners, whose founding partner Donald Capoccia is gay, is co-developing a 17-story affordable housing project in Brooklyn for LGBT seniors.
Real estate attorney Jack Osborn, one of the co-leaders of the GREG group, said it’s important for LGBT professionals to be advocates in whatever way they can.
“I think that being in a high-level position in a major corporate job is a pretty good thing. And I think everybody has to play a different role. They have to use advocacy in the way they see best,” he said.
The next battleground for the LGBT community is likely to be gender identity, which has become increasingly fluid. Indeed, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 1.4 million people — or around 0.6 percent of adults in the country — identify as transgender.
Stribling-Kivlan, for one, declined to provide TRD with a male-versus-female breakdown of her firm’s brokers, saying it’s not the firm’s place to identify its employees by gender.
But she was the only one to take that stance.
She also said that if she lived outside of New York, she might not have the same view of how gender and sexuality play out in the workplace.
“If I lived in rural Alabama, my answer might be different,” Stribling-Kivlan said. “I know the world isn’t all rainbows and unicorns everywhere. I wish it was, because those are both really fun things.”