People often fear operating within equity and equality means selecting individuals solely based on that, Broker Zak Shellhammer explains, but equity and equality are not about favoring one over another. 

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It was September in Houston, Texas. While the locals might consider it a mild day, for most of us, it’s outrageously hot and humid. The mugginess is stifling, but that’s because I’m from Las Vegas and have absolutely no understanding of what weather actually is. 

We’re at a hotel downtown, and I’m surrounded by just about 500 LGBTQ+ people and allies who are all in the real estate industry. I’m surrounded by people who understand the discrimination that I grew up with. I’m at Experience the Alliance, the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance’s second annual conference.

I see tons of successful and happy people. There are people here who have embraced their authenticity and are appearing on the best Top Producer lists. If you had asked me only 20 years ago if I could possibly find myself here, I would have said you were out of your mind. 

It’s astonishing how little time has passed in my lifetime where being authentic about who you are was not widely accepted. Yet, as this conference reminds us, there remains an ongoing battle for acceptance and the freedom to live without fear of physical and mental harm.

I’ve always been a very diverse human. I never fit into the molds of standard business or society as we knew it to be. I started off in the world of real estate as a secretary at a brokerage and was told even then that it was “weird” that a man could be a secretary. That was 20 years ago. I’ve always identified as LGBTQ+, even before the T, Q and plus were part of the acronym. And I was always told that being my true self would mean total destruction of any career I might have. 

Time and time again, my peers would say, “You’ll never succeed if they know you’re gay.”

The path from there to now has been rocky, but here I stand in 2023, a speaker at the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance conference. I crafted and presented my own workshop titled “Building Your Business Through Advocacy and Activism.” The audience was full, and to my surprise, several attendees remarked that I had given them much to think about regarding authenticity in their businesses.

DEI gains momentum

In recent years, diversity, equity and inclusion have gained momentum as a significant topic, especially in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. Our local Las Vegas Association of Realtors initiated its first DEI-related panel early this year, and several workshops have followed. Until 2023, we hadn’t seen initiatives like this within our local industry despite some prior attempts.

In 2024, I will be chairing the Association’s Diversity Committee, which, to my knowledge, will be making its debut.

Last year, community service was a hot topic. The community witnessed a stronger turnout of support for local events and charitable endeavors, and this trend has continued into 2023. Whether we’re progressing into the 21st century or simply identifying new “hot topics,” I am grateful that some of the spotlight is now on DEI and community service. These are matters of humanity, a welcome relief from the bygone era where gender norms dictated the world, and I shouldn’t be a secretary.

At this year’s conference, they announced the “Stop the Hate in Real Estate” campaign. The Alliance has joined forces with other diverse segments in real estate, including NAHREP, AREAA and WomanUP! Together, they are asking fellow Realtors to pledge and end hate in Real Estate. Believe it or not, discrimination and hate still exist for all groups, and you don’t have to look far to find it. 

It’s not about favoritism  

When I speak about diversity, discrimination and equality, I am often asked, “Why?” The first comment I received after posting about the “Stop Hate in Real Estate” campaign was, “What discrimination?” These questions come from well-meaning individuals who genuinely do not perceive certain issues because they themselves would never discriminate against anyone.

This is one of the reasons why I love being a part of the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance. We have the opportunity to educate our allies about the challenges we face and, at times, endure. The same principle holds for other real estate associations like NAREB, NAHREP, AREAA and numerous others — professional groups that share knowledge and awareness, not just about real estate but about the unique challenges we all confront.

What I’ve also learned from DEI classes and various experiences is that there is some confusion regarding the alignment of equity and equality with favoritism. Many individuals express concerns, saying, “I worked hard to overcome obstacles and become the best agent. Now everyone gets a free ride to the top just because of who they are?”

People often fear that this approach means selecting individuals solely based on who they are or how they identify. I am quick to clarify that equity and equality are not about favoritism. I don’t want people to choose me because I’m the LGBTQ+ agent or because I’m pretty cool. I want them to choose me because I’ve dedicated 18 years to this industry, continuously improving my knowledge, professionalism and customer service. Equity and equality simply offer everyone a fair starting point, but each of us must prove ourselves, just like anyone else.

I’m not thrilled that it took roughly 40 years of my life to reach this point, but it’s a considerably shorter time than what many others have endured. Some people never had the chance to experience this progress. I take immense pride in being a part of nationwide organizations that are not only amplifying the message but also fostering a genuine sense of community within our respective industries.

The more we engage in conversations and share our experiences, the more people become aware of what’s happening. This awareness empowers individuals to embrace their true selves in the business world. No more hiding, no more pretending. You can operate authentically in your professional life and excel just as brilliantly as anyone else.

Zak Shellhammer is a broker, coach and consultant. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Instagram

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