Charleston Currents: Charlie Smith and His Years as an LGBTQ Realtor

Charlie recently gave his insight and perspective with an article featured in Charleston Currents about what he has learned in his 23 years as not just an LGBTQ-friendly realtor in Charleston, but also as a member of the LGBTQ community.

FOCUS: What I’ve learned in 23 years as an LGBTQ Charleston Realtor

I moved home to Charleston 23 years ago after two years at Clemson working on a master’s degree in planning and 12 years of living in Miami. Soon after returning, I walked into Dudley’s on King Street and ran into an old acquaintance who had lived up the street from me in graduate school. He asked what I intended to do for a living.

I told him that I intended to establish South Carolina’s first openly gay-owned and -operated real estate brokerage, marketing primarily to the LGBTQ community. His immediate response was “You’ll never make a dime in this town!” I never forgot those words. I immediately set out to prove him wrong.

The History of LGBTQ Real Estate in Charleston

Real estate was a tight-knit business community back then. It was not all that welcoming to people who had no intention of working under an established broker, but rather who planned to start an office from scratch. It was also 1996 and the internet was in its infancy as a real estate tool. What that meant was that our new venture, CSA Real Estate Services, would have to be built by connecting real people interested in a common cause rather than by sending out a mass email, a tool that did not yet exist broadly. I came to realize that the common cause (and our company’s specialization) needed to be that of protecting LGBTQ families and individuals from discrimination in the real estate, insurance and finance industries.

When our first website went up in 1996, it included a lengthy article on exactly how LGBTQ people could be quickly disadvantaged in a real estate transaction if they were unaware of dangerous legal pitfalls, such as an attorney not asking about the titling of property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship to prevent disgruntled heirs from seizing half of an LGBTQ couple’s assets following a death. Straight Realtors who wanted a share of the LGBTQ market would often say things like “I would never discriminate against a gay person,” but in reality, they had no idea at all how to legally protect LGBTQ people in a real estate transaction. They thought that not being mean was sufficient.

At the time, Charleston had a sizable LGBTQ community, but it was deeply closeted and somewhat self-destructive. At meetings of the Lowcountry Gay and Lesbian Alliance in 1996, last names on name tags were prohibited because members were afraid of being outed at work. This was no way to run an LGBTQ community. A small group of us who recognized that problem decided to do something about it. In 1998, the Alliance for Full Acceptance was born. Charleston and South Carolina have never been the same. CSA Real Estate Services became an advocate and sponsor of many of the early efforts that sprang from the founding of AFFA and continues to support its mission today.

But nothing has changed our world more rapidly and more completely than the instant availability of vast amounts of knowledge that exploded with the advent of the internet. LGBTQ people suddenly had the ability to define themselves to the world instead of being marginalized by it. The networks we began to build back then continue to tell us who is working for and against our LGBTQ citizens. They help us mobilize responses. And they help us celebrate who we are. This was all new in 1996.

LGBTQ Real Estate in Charleston Today

Much has changed in 23 years, including the establishment of the legal right to marry, but sadly LGBTQ people can still have their wedding announced in the morning paper and be fired from their job and receive an eviction notice by the close of the business day because of that announcement . That’s why CSA Real Estate Services is still here and still engaged 23 years later.

As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without demand and struggle. It never has and it never will.”

Meet Charlie Smith

Broker in Charge for CSA Real Estate Services since 1996.

Charlie returned to his native South Carolina in July of 1996 and discovered that there was a need in his home state for the same kind of advocacy in the LGBT community as he had found in Miami Beach and Miami in the 1980’s. In 1997 Charlie took the leap of becoming the first openly gay real estate broker in South Carolina to market primarily to the LGBT community. Within a matter of weeks Charlie realized that he had correctly gauged the market in Charleston as a destination for preservation-minded LGBT investors seeking a welcoming southern community. This became the foundation for CSA Real Estate Services, which has continued to serve the real estate and community needs of LGBT South Carolinians and their allies since 1997.

Charlie was able to spot early LGBT growth trends in the Wagener Terrace, North Central, West Ashley and James Island neighborhoods of Charleston and has been instrumental in redevelopment efforts in each. As these neighborhoods and others began to attract more LGBT residents, Charlie collaborated with other LGBT leaders who were coming to the same conclusion that Charleston needed an organization dedicated to creating a healthier LGBT community and which would advocate on many levels for the betterment of our community and state. The Alliance for Full Acceptance came into being in 1998 as a result of this and through its networking, advocacy and education programs it has become one of the largest and most respected social justice organizations in the South. Charlie served as Vice President for the organization’s first seven years.

In 2002 Charlie became the first openly gay non-incumbent to run for political office in South Carolina finishing with 41% of the vote in the race against the notoriously anti-gay John Graham Altman in House District 119. He ran again in 2004 and finished with 48% of the vote. He was credited with having ended the political career of Mr. Altman whose support within his party was clearly waning.