ST. PETERSBURG — When Greg Burton was a lawyer in Kentucky more than a decade ago, he likely would have lost business if he had advertised the fact that he was gay.
"I felt like I had to live two worlds," he said. "There was not enough gay business so that you could be an openly gay attorney there."
But now as a Realtor with Watts Realty Group at 2000 First St. N, he estimates that 50 percent of his business is with clients who come to him for that very reason.
Burton, like several other local real estate agents, is included in such online directories as the Gay Realty Network and the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals.
"I think gays and lesbians are more comfortable about being open about their lifestyle with a gay Realtor. They don't feel like they are going to be treated in a condescending manner," he said. "They've been the majority of my out-of-state business, and they have found me for that reason."
About a third of Connie Lancaster's business is the result of clients who find her through online directories of gay Realtors.
"It's a sign of the times. What can I say?" said Lancaster, who works at Smith & Associates at 300 Beach Drive NE.
Co-worker Cynthia Serra can speak from experience.
"When my partner and I were buying a home (several years ago) in Columbia, S.C., it was difficult," she said. "We had a Realtor that actually dropped us because we were gay."
While the general population is more accepting, many gay couples are still wary of making their personal life apparent to everyone.
"Even yesterday at an open house I ran into two women. They were very hesitant about saying they were together," Serra recounted. "When I said, 'My partner and I have lived in this neighborhood for 20 years,' it was like 'boom.' The floodgates opened." They told Serra they were partners and what they were looking for in a house.
Like Burton, Serra remembers a time not too long ago when her career would have been in jeopardy if she let it be known she was gay, the former teacher said.
"I had teacher friends who were fired in the '90s, the late '90s because they were gay," she said. "Now most people are okay about it."
More than 500 Realtors nationwide pay annual dues of $249 to the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Realtors and are included in its online directory. It gets 20,000 to 25,000 unique visits a month, according to Jeff Berger, founder of the group based in Delray Beach.
"Whether someone is gay, white, yellow or black, people connect with other people for various reasons. I would not say I connect with everyone who is gay. It's about personalities," Lancaster said. "But people who are gay want to work with people who understand their situations and feel comfortable working with them.''
When asked if she has lost any business because of her openness about her homosexuality, Lancaster said she didn't know of a certain instance but added if people choose not to work with her because she is gay she would prefer not to work with them either.
Because of the fair housing law that was originally passed in 1968, Realtors are not allowed to "steer" a certain demographic to a specific neighborhood.
"We have to walk a fine line. You can't tell people where to buy," Lancaster said. "I can tell them that I know Gulfport has a big gay population or that the Old Northeast is open to the lifestyle."
"I can't tell you, 'This is a gay area.' I can say: 'This is a place where I would feel comfortable living,' " Burton explained.
He has many gay buyers, however, who are quick to say they don't want to live in a "gay ghetto" where most homes and businesses are owned by gays.
"They ask: 'Where are we going to feel like we're part of the community? I want to be in an area with all types of people,' " Burton said.
Brian Longstreth is a gay Realtor in residential and commercial real estate who was involved in deals with the Queenshead, the Queen and I, and Beak's Old Florida restaurants in the Grand Central district along Central Avenue. He started in real estate 20 years ago and formed his own company, Your Neighborhood Realty, in 1999. His two brothers, who are straight, work there as well, and the firm serves clients of all types.
Longstreth also has done a lot of residential deals in the Historic Kenwood area.
"It goes back to the stereotype that gays move into a kind of rough neighborhood first because they tend not to have kids and don't worry as much about schools. They are the early investors and renovators, and it gets more gentrified and everyone follows," he said. "Now in Historic Kenwood you see lots more families with kids moving in."
Serving gay buyers and sellers "is a niche market for me. It's been very satisfying to see the progress that's been made and how the gay community helps revitalize neighborhoods."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8785.