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.”