Penning this article in February, LGBT history month, gives us pause to reflect not only on our own history as Freehold but also the journey the wider property industry has walked with us for the better part of a decade. Freehold took form some nine years ago as a free-to-join support network for real estate professionals who identify as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Prior to our existence, it felt as if there were no LGBT professionals working in property. When the network launched and approached employers both large and small, there was not so much hard-wired resistance as blissful ignorance. “We don’t have any gay employees” or “We don’t have a problem; we are a completely inclusive businesses were common responses.
Freehold’s early joiners told a different story of not being “out” at work for fear of career limitation. Stories abounded of having to put up with the kind of office banter that was both dehumanising and demoralising. Other members told stories of banter that crossed over into actual bullying. Across the board there was a mental strain on wellbeing, of feeling “different” and not having the freedom to bring one’s whole self to work. Today, we boast more than 1,300 members and have refined our purpose over time. Among our key aims is to provide a welcoming, supportive and confidential space for LGBT real estate professionals to meet and share what matters to them. But more than that, we aim to raise the profile of LGBT real estate professionals and their achievements in order to inspire and signal to the industry that inclusive business is good business. Thanks to sincere and prolonged engagement from the industry, the property workplace of today is vastly different to when Freehold first set about its mission. Openly LGBT role models are visible and celebrated at all levels of organisations. There is no longer a blanket need to hide sexuality in the presentation of a CV or at interview. Indeed, the very notion in 2020 seems almost alien, to the point that numerous companies talk about their LGBT network during induction sessions with all new employees.
Perhaps the most profound change for LGBT professionals in the property industry is the sense that we are not merely tolerated for reasons of “political correctness”; rather, we are now embraced for all that we are, instead of excluded. This is borne out by the consultation we are regularly asked to give around diversity to industry bodies such as RICS, RIBA, RTPI, BPF and Revo. Likewise, the number of major property players that earmark participation in both London and regional pride marches is a powerful affirmation that LGBT colleagues matter.
Equally heartening is the financial backing from our corporate sponsors British Land, Landsec, Shaftesbury and Taylor Wessing, which have all tangibly enabled our efforts. Other sector-specific or regional LGBT networks have sprung out of Freehold, including Planning Out, Open Land (Birmingham), Real Estate Professionals (Manchester) and Off Site. Key employers such as CBRE, JLL, Savills, Cluttons, Knight Frank, Cushman & Wakefield and many more too numerous to list have hosted events for us, and gone on to start their own internal diversity networks following colleagues meeting at Freehold events. This is a reality we scarcely dared hope for when our group of volunteers created Freehold. There is, of course, still more work to be done. Now that inclusivity is on the radar we need to distill and understand how diversity intersects across numerous touch points – not only sexuality, but also race and gender. Those of us who work in London or big cities need to remember the level of acceptance we enjoy is not always afforded to colleagues in smaller offices or regions, and we need to be mindful of how we reach and support them. Sadly, we also find there are older LGBT colleagues who are still in the closet for fear of being called a liar for playing it straight all these years. All of us – both LGBT and allies – need to make sure we create spaces and opportunities for those conversations to happen without fear. While there will always be sections of the industry that are more problematic than others, the property industry in the main is to be commended for being willing to do the hard yards; to provide introspection, engage, support and own where it has been found wanting. The poet Maya Angelou famously said: ”I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Freehold and all LGBT colleagues look forward to a future where we all do better, together.