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Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

One in every 25 Americans identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in 2016, the highest figure Gallup has ever tracked. But if you are gay and in commercial real estate, it can feel like you are alone in the industry.

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, a national report on corporate policies toward LGBT employees, gave 515 companies a perfect score in 2017. Of those, 112 were law firms and 38 were retail companies. Even the oil and gas industry, typically viewed as a more conservative wing of the corporate world, had 17 companies with high scores.

Commercial real estate? Three. 

While it is safe to assume there is a sizable LGBT population within CRE, there is very limited data about it. There are no major studies on where LGBT people fall on the corporate ladder, their pay relative to straight colleagues or on incidents of discrimination in the workforce.

Jeff Berger, founder of the National Association of Gay & Lesbian Real Estate Professionals, said his organization attempted to collect data through the National Association of Realtors. It stopped after a focus group complained about how the member survey asked about sexual orientation.

Bisnow reached out to LGBT men and women to, in what is believed to be an industry first, hear their voices. We discussed everything from hiring discrimination and feeling lonely to how being gay has been a competitive advantage for some. This long-silent minority in CRE is finally ready to come out. 

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE
Christopher Fraley, husband Victor Self, and their daughters Kiki and Coco

Christopher Fraley, Los Angeles, 48, Evolve Real Estate founder

“I sometimes think commercial real estate and professional sports are the last bastions of homophobia in America,” Los Angeles-based Evolve Real Estate founder Christopher Fraley said with a heavy sigh. 

Fraley said corporate culture has become more welcoming in his 25 years in the industry, but there is work to be done. There is a difference between tolerating photos of same-sex couples on a desk and truly supporting someone as a leader, he said.

Studies show this is not a regional problem.

“You think it only happens in red states, but I regularly counsel associates in New York and San Francisco who are having a hard time coming out and are scared,” Fraley said. “It’s not like the coasts are guaranteed safe harbors.”

Be it to a parent or to a professional, most LGBT people agonize over that gut-wrenching moment of coming out. For Fraley, there was not much initial anguish with coming out at the office. 

“When my boss offered me a ride home from the airport after a work trip, I nonchalantly said my boyfriend was picking me up,” Fraley said. “He simply replied with an, ‘oh!’”

But the exchange was not limited to the airport. Coming out is a process rather than an event — a very repetitive one. Fraley said he has been coming out for 15 years to various colleagues and friends, often through small talk. 

“Every day you have the choice to correct their pronoun or avoid it," he said. "I always get, ‘How does your wife like living in L.A.?’”

Before starting his own business, Fraley worked for the New York City government for over five years as a director of an inclusionary affordable housing program and a residential conversion program. He wound up at real estate investment company Rockwood Capital, where he was a partner and on the firm’s investment and management committees. During his time focusing on acquisitions and asset management for the firm’s East Coast operations, Fraley’s lead transactions represented $1B in equity and roughly $2.5B in total capitalized value. 

But Fraley said he does not think his success is a sign of total acceptance of gay men or the greater LGBT community within the industry. When asked if there is only so far LGBT people can expect to go with their careers, Fraley laughed before turning serious. 

“Are you asking if I think there is a lavender ceiling?” he asked. “How many openly gay partners do you really see in institutional real estate private equity? I can think of two.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Brian Schneider, San Francisco, 56,  Prime Finance head of investor relations

Prime Finance head of investor relations and LGREG co-founder Brian Schneider has some advice for his younger self coming to terms with his LGBT identity. 

“I would tell him that this is who you are and part of you,” Schneider said. “It’s something that we should be proud of. Focus on your career, and you can handle it in your own way. There are places for you.”

Schneider helped co-found (with Fraley) one of those places: LGREG, the Lesbian and Gay Real Estate Group. LGREG and New York’s GREG are networking groups for LGBT people in real estate. Schneider likens it to the best parts of fraternity culture.

“LGREG helps you navigate the industry and hopefully rise through the ranks. Use it like a fraternity network,” he said. “When our network is strong, we become more visible and people hear our voices. You have to be out there so someone else can see your journey and be inspired to do the same.”

He recognizes change is coming. As younger generations rise into more senior roles, acceptance and inclusion get better than before. It still takes time. 

Schneider has been able to experience reactions to sexual identity across the country. He started out in Dallas in 1985 working in savings and loans before working in several real estate groups at MetLife, which moved him between New York and Texas. As a portfolio manager for TRW Investment Management Co. in Cleveland, he built a diverse portfolio of office, multifamily, retail and industrial assets. He has managed the real estate portfolios for DuPont and the University of Pennsylvania as well as for a family network and foundation, which is how he wound up in California. His current job at Prime Finance focuses on the CRE debt space. 

“In New York, everything is addressed and tolerated, but the Midwest is also tolerant and laid back in a different way,” he said. “My boss likely knew but didn’t talk about it. My co-workers and HR didn’t care. It wasn’t proactive, but it wasn’t negative, either.”

Schneider said there has always been an underground gay network in the corporate world — you just had to know where to look. The secret network did not extend into real estate, which still resonates with him in how much there is to be done in his own industry.

“As the years have gone by, coming out has definitely gotten better,” he said. “It totally depends on your region and what part of the industry you work in. But once I’m out, I’m out. If you can’t deal with it, oh well.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Michael Panagako, Boston, 40, KHJ Brand Activation Vice President/Senior Strategist

“I don’t think of commercial real estate so much as anti-gay as it’s an industry where it is against anything that isn’t a straight, white male.”

Panagako worked in commercial brokerage at Meredith & Grew, a Boston firm that became the local branch of Colliers International. He worked in development for seven years at Nordblom Co. and had a brief stint in CRE financing before switching to marketing. He has established a knack for branding $1B+ mixed-use, master planned developments across the country.

“I never personally had a bad experience in real estate, it was just that I felt somewhat isolated,” Panagako said. “I think a large part of the reason there aren’t more gay people in commercial real estate is because, like me, they self-selected to leave the industry, or self-selected to not go into it.”

His departure was not from any specific act of hostility. Rather, he said it was from wanting to be in an environment where he didn’t feel so much like an “other.” 

Self-selection aside, Panagako likens the industry to the professional progression of the fraternity house. It is all about fit and personal relationships: weekend golf, steakhouse dinners with clients, idle chatter about kids and life in the suburbs. Commercial brokerage and the networking that goes with it might leave something to be desired for one not inclined to visit Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket.

“There was just so much less I could find in common with everyone, so I ended up being quieter and less comfortable in my own voice,” he said. “So I left the industry, even though I absolutely love it.”

Since shifting into the creative side of CRE, Panagako has noticed there are more people like him around. Despite having hundreds of colleagues in the early years of his career, he never encountered anyone who was out at work. Today, he works with dozens at his firm and partner firms. 

Despite his departure from the core of CRE, he does not view the people he worked with in a poor light.

“Peter Nordblom was my boss for seven years and he’s a man of extreme integrity. He would never, ever put up with even a whiff of homophobia at his firm,” he said. “That’s why, looking back, it’s sort of perplexing that I still left the industry.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE
Adam Stanley and Cushman & Wakefield CEO of the Americas Tod Lickerman

Adam Stanley, Chicago, 43, Cushman & Wakefield Global Chief Information Officer

“On a scale from one-10, I’d say the industry is a three or a four,” Cushman & Wakefield Global Chief Information Officer Adam Stanley said about CRE’s handling of its LGBT members.

Cushman & Wakefield kicked off Pride 2017 with a celebration in its global headquarters in Chicago that was attended by 80% of its staff — both LGBT and allies. While Cushman & Wakefield fosters a welcoming environment with supportive staff, Stanley said the industry at large still has room for growth.

“It’s definitely gotten better than from, what I hear, the way it was 10 to 15 years ago,” Stanley said. “But I would say it is still very far behind other progressive industries, both in sexual orientation as well as gender and racial diversity.” 

Stanley started out over 20 years ago in consulting, working in strategy and M&A advisory. He transitioned into technology with stints at Dutch Bank ABN AMRO, financial services firm Aon Corp. and eventually Aviva.

He became chief information officer in 2014 at real estate services firm DTZ, which merged with Cushman & Wakefield in 2015. 

It can still be challenging to help change the stigma for the professional LGBT community, Stanley said. He said culture is becoming more welcoming of the gay community, but it is harder to have open conversations the higher he gets in his career since fewer people know him personally. 

“At our Pride Day event, many of our LGBT employees felt more comfortable approaching me in that situation than they have before,” Stanley said. “I have to create opportunities like that so junior employees feel comfortable to come up to me, other execs or colleagues to talk about it.”

Discussion of personal lives was off-limits in the corporate world he came of age in, and the ones who did chat about it were the “bro dudes,” Stanley said. The B2B nature of CRE is a component in its lagging visibility within the LGBT community. Ads from banks, residential real estate firms, and other consumer-facing industries were rampant during Pride in June, but there was little from the commercial side. 

Recognizing Cushman & Wakefield’s leading role in the industry, he said the company needs to lead in building a workforce that looks like the world around it. The fast-changing nature of the business has Stanley thinking progress will be swift.  

“Residential real estate is interesting because it does have a lot of ‘us,’ so to speak,” he said. “I think we can get there, and the time is right for us to leapfrog ahead as an industry.”  

Since being honest and open with co-workers, Stanley said he has experienced greater success on his career track. Even if people did not agree with his sexual orientation, they recognized other people of power and influence were on his side, so they would never air their grievances.

“If you get to a certain part in your career, you are hurting the community if you don’t make a big deal about who you are,” Stanley said. “Because there is someone looking up to you who would like to see you more visible so they can be more visible and comfortable.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Russ Bates, New York City, 50, Aviva Investors head of the Americas, Global Indirect Real Estate and Portfolio Manager

Russ Bates started work at the height of “don’t ask, don’t tell” corporate culture in 1996. He practiced securities law at the Securities and Exchange Commission before transitioning to real estate investment banking at Friedman Billings Ramsey in D.C. He worked on several REIT public offerings and mezzanine loans to REITs as that sector matured. He eventually became a director at UBS Investment Bank in the real estate group. 

It was not until he started his own business with a mentor from UBS and others and looked to include his then-partner on the company’s group health coverage that he came out in the workplace. 

“My parents taught me to be humble about any success,” he said. “Because of that, I am never comfortable with too much focus on me. In coming out in the workplace, however, I always prefer that it happens in casual conversation and never seems like I was seeking permission from others to be myself.”

His business partner responded well, the business flourished and became recognized by major private wealth houses for its research and underwriting capabilities. It was eventually acquired by Aviva Investors, where Bates is now a senior executive. 

“Lots of teammates and industry friends know that I am gay but it is merely one aspect of who I am. Others may be learning about me for the first time here; that’s not intentional but rather due to intensity and focus that dominate my work life. One of the reasons I chose this field is because it’s the ultimate meritocracy, where your capabilities and track record matter most,” he said. “Thus, while I am not naïve, I would like to think that most investors are more interested in results than my personal life.”

Millennials are now the largest population in the workforce, and Bates says the generation’s progressive perspective will have more impact on the business than any single action. More firms are offering equal protection clauses and partner benefits. Broader diversity with race, gender and sexual orientation are now seen as pivotal in recruiting and maintaining a successful investment team. 

“I see the need for diverse teams all the time when looking at trends in retail, senior housing, student housing, multifamily and any other sector that is impacted by demographic trends — which is virtually everything,” he said. 

Despite his success and acceptance at work, Bates has faced his share of adversity. 

“Growing up in a conservative Southern town in Tennessee certainly exposed me to homophobia and negative critique from an early age,” he said. “From that, I had to learn to accept what was valid and grow while discarding the noise.”

Coming out — both to one’s self and to parents, family and friends — is a unifying experience for gay people regardless of generation, he said.  

“It is the decision to live honestly with the people you love the most,” he said. “I went through those difficult experiences numerous times over — each of which felt like jumping off a cliff and not knowing if I would land in water or hit the rocks. It gives me an inner personal strength from an experience that many of my friends will not know.”

From those experiences, Bates said he gained a stronger sense of empathy for others while toughening up to a world that can be harsh. It was vital in launching his own company and being able to read potential joint venture partners or potential business opportunities. 

“For me, being gay has been a positive in my career, granting me a different perspective and resilience in tough times,” he said.

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Bryan Furze, Boston, 41, Federal Realty Investment Trust Vice President of Asset Management

“You might say I’ve repeatedly taken the hostile path by first going to school at Notre Dame and then entering commercial real estate’s old boys’ club,” Federal Realty Vice President Bryan Furze said, laughing.

While Notre Dame was intentional, Furze’s foray into CRE was less certain. Like Panagako, he worked at Meredith & Grew. He started out in the marketing department, but just as he was attempting to grow into the development side, the Sept. 11th attacks occurred. 

“The whole world fell apart — especially for CRE with the one-two punch of the tech bubble bursting,” he said. 

As the world recovered, he worked his way up through leasing and retail development. He worked on finance deals for projects like One Cambridge in Boston but came to realize he wanted to get into ownership. A former Meredith & Grew colleague owned Crosspoint Associates, a development firm specializing in office buildings and grocery-anchored shopping centers, and offered him a job. 

At Crosspoint, Furze finally felt comfortable enough to come out. The company immediately made Furze feel included and made sure to invite his now-husband LeeMichael to company parties. It was trailblazing at the time, Furze said. 

“For the longest time, I had played the pronoun game and avoided any talk of my personal life, but it was time to say I had a partner,” Furze said. “I don’t know if it necessarily got me in the boys’ club, but it opens doors, as I’m not constantly on guard.” 

He eventually went to Linear Realty, where he accrued what he calls a “retail Ph.D.” in mom-and-pop shops and smaller assets. He is now a vice president at Federal Realty, overseeing the company’s 18-asset, 3M+ SF New York and Boston portfolio. 

Furze said the industry is making subtle, organic strides. While none of the companies he worked for have made an outward statement supporting the LGBT community, he said the efforts he has experienced have been more important. 

When he and LeeMichael had their son, Linear allowed Furze to take time off and be with his family.

“They had to really step outside their comfort zone to accommodate and support and make everyone comfortable,” Furze said, “Actions like that are far more significant than donating to an LGBT charity.” 

But he is not whitewashing away the negatives. He still is not comfortable revealing his sexual orientation in a job interview, saying there is this nagging sense that it is easier for a company to pick the “normal” guy. 

“Women certainly have an issue getting paid 78 cents on the dollar, but for many LGBT people it is zero cents on the dollar because it becomes a question of whether or not you can even get hired in the first place,” he said. 

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Holden Slusher, Dallas, 31, Goldman Sachs Multifamily Development Asset Manager

“It is common in some parts of the industry to be at broker events where female models are hired to serve the appetizers. That’s just the way the industry goes,” Holden Slusher said. “I have heard stories from other firms of executives asking a lot of personal questions, such as what nightclubs a candidate likes, just to find out if the candidate was gay before they hired him, and that is bothersome.”

Slusher oversees multifamily investments with Goldman’s development partners across 11 U.S. markets. He also asset manages a growing rent-controlled portfolio of properties in Downtown San Francisco and a value-add property in Atlanta. He previously focused on office product as a vice president with KBS Capital Advisors based in California, working on acquisitions and asset management for the firm’s value-add REITs.

He came out to a select group of co-workers two years into the job at KBS after being exhausted by hiding his personal life. 

“I have always felt that lying is burdensome, and hiding my personal life at work was becoming taxing,” he said. “I didn't want that burden to negatively affect my work product.”

Slusher’s experience in CRE as a gay man has been positive. His co-workers at KBS — even very religious ones — were supportive. He was glad that after coming out that he could still bond with his colleagues at sporting and industry events or mixers.  

He said Goldman promotes diversity on all fronts. He serves on an informal LGBT steering committee in Dallas and served on New York’s Pride Month committee this year. He is very impressed with how inclusive Goldman has been, and he attributes that to a culture of openness and inclusiveness. 

“The industry has adapted very much in the last decade,” Slusher said. “I would say this progression is similar to how the nation has come around on perceptions of gay rights and gay marriage.”

He still sees room for improvement. There have been times in his career when people have told him “funny” stories about their interactions with gay people, not realizing he was gay. He said he thinks these stories are harmless, but most come across as homophobic and, although he was not offended, another co-worker might have been.

Limited exposure to gay people is the root of the problem, and greater visibility will bring change, he said. Groups like LGREG (where he met Russ Bates) help to build the LGBT network. Slusher said the next step is to make their presence known through openness with co-workers and outreach to higher management. 

“Be authentic from the start and do it with confidence,” he said. “If someone asks if you have a girlfriend, respond in a non-confrontational way that you actually date guys (or vice versa). I would also suggest reaching out to executives to grab lunch in an effort to establish industry veterans as mentors. Your hard work and your network are integral to success in our industry.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Michael Sarkozi, New York City, 55, Wells Fargo Managing Director-Commercial Real Estate

Wells Fargo lit its Charlotte, North Carolina, skyscraper the colors of the transgender flag as a sign of solidarity at the height of the HB2 “bathroom bill” battle. It made it corporate policy to let someone use whichever bathroom he or she feels comfortable in — a rule that is enforced in liberal bastions like New York or small branches in towns like Hickory, North Carolina. 

Michael Sarkozi frequently mentions facts like this and how happy he is working for Wells Fargo. DiversityInc ranked it the top company for LGBT employees, and it has a perfect score on its Corporate Equality Index. A company LGBT Fact Sheet shows that a sizable chunk of the $281M Wells Fargo gave to charities in 2015 went to organizations like GLAAD, PFLAG and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, and 11,000 of the company’s employees are involved in the in-house LGBT group. 

Before Wells Fargo, Sarkozi worked as an analyst at New York Life. When he started at Bear Stearns originating conduit loans in the mid-'90s, his boss asked him if he was gay, and he answered honestly.

“It’s the biggest favor that he could do for me because I didn't lie,” Sarkozi said. “Always be honest and true to yourself and don’t make up fake stories of fake partners or beards.”

Sarkozi said he never faced a problem being an openly gay man in an investment bank. One of his best business friends is a fundamentalist Christian, and he said the two get along and through dinners without anyone flipping the table. 

Sarkozi said the trick is to prioritize respect over politics, and recognize and accept not everyone is built the same.

“Some people have blue eyes, some have green,” Sarkozi said. “I happen to have hazel eyes and a husband.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Martin Pawlik, New York City, 27, Drake Real Estate Partners Vice President

“With our generation, there has been a push to right the wrongs of the past,” Martin Pawlik said. “The older I have become, living in New York City or other diverse communities, it has been an absolute advantage to be LGBT.”

Pawlik started out in investment banking at J.P. Morgan before moving on to LA-based hedge fund Canyon Partners. He landed in New York at Drake Real Estate Partners, where he focuses on acquisitions. He has diverse colleagues, including gay executives, women and minorities. In college he attended Out For Undergrad, an organization focused on promoting LGBTQ leaders in their professional lives, which inspired him to always be out in the workplace. 

“CRE is all about building relationships, and it’s hard to do that without being honest,” Pawlik said. 

He recognizes the generational advantage he has compared to LGBT people working in the business in the '70s or '80s. He said big business’ promotion of equality and acceptance is attracting more talent and having a trickle-down effect. Some of the biggest banks, where Pawlik sees the biggest push for marriage equality, attract LGBT employees who later move on to private equity shops and hedge funds, he said. 

GREG has been a big part of Pawlik’s career. The organization holds regular meetings every few weeks and has site tours of projects members are working for. It even assigns mentors to younger members. 

“If I was straight, I wouldn’t have such access to so many architects, leaders in banking and other members of the industry at this point in my career,” Pawlik said of the group.

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Atish Shah, Orlando, 44, Xenia Hotels Chief Financial Officer

“Commercial real estate is not necessarily about taking care of people and more about taking care of buildings,” Atish Shah said. 

Shah is the chief financial officer of Xenia Hotels, a public lodging REIT based in Orlando. He has worked in a variety of roles in finance, hospitality and real estate. He believes the hospitality industry is ahead of the corporate curve in promoting equality and inclusivity of the LGBT community, and attributes it to the sector's focus on taking care of people. 

He waited to come out to anyone at work until his early 30s, and even then, it was only to close colleagues. Shah’s career migration might look like the opposite direction of a typical gay man. He started in Los Angeles before moving to Chicago and winding up in Orlando in 2016. He said he does not feel left out despite living outside of a progressive bubble.

“In each of these places, it’s about the communities you develop. There is support wherever you are, but you have to find it,” Shah said. “Despite being a swing state, Florida does have a strong community of tolerance, too.”

While he has found support along the way, Shah said the lack of visible LGBT leadership in CRE is a problem. Performance will only get a person so far in advancing his or her career, and then it comes down to fit. 

“It can be tough for LGBT people to be deemed to 'fit' given that our priorities, approach, families, interests and goals can vary significantly from others with whom we work,” he said. “Beyond that, we have a more limited number of peers, advocates, sponsors and mentors in the workplace.”

Shah did not have an LGBT mentor when he began his career, which he said needs to change for those entering the workforce. He recognizes things have improved with an industry focus on inclusion and diversity, but the scope of that depends on geography, urbanization and culture norms, and Shah said it seems to focus on groups that are not LGBT.

“I’m a person of color and gay, so my experience is a bit different. Sometimes I think you can feel alone in this environment, as you’re a little rarer in both the LGBT and person of color world,” he said. “I now see more women and people of color in senior management and serving as directors on boards. I don’t see many LGBT people in similar roles.”

What will it take to get more people like him to advance and have similar success? Shah said those just entering the business should jump at challenging opportunities during their quest for acceptance, raising their hands for the best projects and roles and remaining steadfast that advancement will come. 

“When I have hit the glass ceiling, I have had to be agile and pivot. That has meant finding a different manager, a different role or a different employer,” Shah said. “While this has been disruptive to my personal life at times, I am still positive. My goal, to be a CEO, hasn’t changed. I do hope that those who follow me will have a smoother path.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

David Ambroz, Los Angeles, 39, Los Angeles Planning Commission President

David Ambroz came out in law school in a very different climate than the legal industry today. He said he faced difficult headwinds, but the adversity did not impede his success.

Ambroz lives in Hollywood with his husband, Dan, and their foster son Vince. Along with being president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, he works full time as executive director of Corporate Citizenship & Social Responsibility for the Disney/ABC Television Group. Before that, he served on many neighborhood boards and worked with nonprofits that gave him the acceptance the legal world initially did not. Listening to all ideas rather than just ones from people who think like he does is key to success in his work with developers and elsewhere, he said.

Like so many we talked to, Ambroz did not have an LGBT role model to look up to, which is why he supports Fraley and Schneider in creating the California chapter of LGREG and other networking groups like LAMDA Legal. Rather than limit the LGBT “moment” to Pride Month in June, he said there needs to be a sustained movement so others in CRE see diversity and are inspired to do the same in their own businesses. 

“We need to find a way to move beyond simple acceptance into genuine inclusion and finally normalcy,” he said.

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Randi Gerson, San Francisco, 58, FivePoint Senior Director of Development

Randi Gerson answers her phone, and it is a huge relief. She is the first woman willing to discuss her experience, and it is five hours from deadline. 

“You have to realize, there aren’t that many women in CRE, so there are going to be even fewer lesbians,” she said. 

Gerson has worked at FivePoint Communities, coastal California’s largest master planned developer, for just under three years as the senior director of development. She leads the vertical team and oversees the development of 20,000 homes in the company’s Candlestick Point, the Shipyard and Treasure Island communities. 

Her career in development came later in life; she started out as an architect. While she found architecture school to be a fantastic education that taught problem-solving skills, she switched careers when a developer, who not coincidentally was a gay man, offered her a job at nonprofit Mercy Housing developing affordable housing. She said her six years there trained her to be a developer, but she recognizes the career track could have occurred much sooner. 

“Being a lesbian put my career growth on ‘queer time,’ which is different from ‘straight time,’" she said. “You have to leave home to find yourself in ways your straight counterparts do not, and you lose time because of that. I was not able to be my full self until after I left my parents’ home. I needed to find role models and the understanding of who I was and the strength to come out — that took time away from focusing on my career.” 

Originally from New Jersey, Gerson was out in the workplace when she moved to San Francisco, but, as there were not many lesbians in her field, it has not been easy to find role models like her. 

She lauds FivePoint for being a supportive place to work and recognizes its push for diversity and an executive level well-populated with women. Still, Gerson can see the industry at large has issues with women and the gay community.  

“Real estate is a hard place to be a woman and even harder to be a lesbian,” she said.

Advancement and getting up to the executive level has been, and continues to be, difficult for women. This is not because women lack skills or are not interested enough in the industry, Gerson said. She said it is not impossible to get ahead, but it often depends on where you work. 

“I think there are opportunities where you can swim through the cracks,” she said. “But there are definitely more firms and companies where it is harder or impossible to get through.”

While she might be one of the few out lesbians she knows in development, Gerson is not lonely. People respect her and her life, which she said is key to maintaining fulfillment in the workplace. People see her for all of who she is and not just her sexuality, she said. 

“When I’m in places where there isn’t respect, then I feel lonely,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if there is another gay person or 10 other gay people around.”

Smashing The Lavender Ceiling: Inside The LGBT World Of CRE

Twenty percent of LGBT employees are subject to bullying in the workplace, according to a Human Rights Campaign Foundation report. It is the top reason cited in a recent report as to why they leave a job. Everyone Bisnow spoke to agreed coming out gives straight co-workers exposure to this silent minority and is the best path forward in changing attitudes. The financial implication is not a bad reminder, either. 

Money talks, and it could be driving the organic change in how LGBT people are treated in CRE. LGBT buying power in the United States is forecast to exceed $1 trillion by 2020. Globally, the number reaches $3.7 trillion, spurring industries to re-evaluate political stances and treatment of diverse employees. 

“The LGBT population has a fair amount of spending power and significant loyalty to each other,” Bryan Furze said. “There are opportunities to capture that, but you have to bring the people who are part of that along if you want to share the wealth. Otherwise, you’re just leaving business on the table.”

CORRECTION, JULY 11, 4:07 P.M., ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly used a term that implies choice in one’s sexual orientation. The story has been updated.

CORRECTION, JULY 10, 1:33 P.M., ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the names of Bryan Furze’s husband, LeeMichael, and Peter Nordblom. The story has been updated. 

Related Topics: LGBTQ