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By Karen Derr
With over 36,000 members, the Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) is an organization as diverse as Houston itself. The Realtor Code of Ethics prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This year, HAR board members elected Cindy Hamann as their first openly gay chair of the board. Hamann is fearless when it comes to growing the bottom line for some of Houston’s most successful real-estate offices, but she was less bold when it came to sharing details about her personal life. She came out at work only five years ago, and before that she would often introduce her longtime partner, Lisa Greer, to associates as her cousin.
Hamann, who has enjoyed a long career in real-estate sales management, became a Realtor (like so many in Houston) after being laid off in the oil industry. The native Houstonian was recruited in the 1990s by a relocation company to clean houses being made ready for sale. Realizing the money that could be made selling homes, and encouraged by her mentor at Corporate Link, Carol Knight, Hamann obtained her real-estate license. After her first year of selling real estate with Better Homes and Gardens, she was named Rookie of the Year. A move to Coldwell Banker United launched the newly single mother of three into branch management and steering the careers of aspiring Realtors. “I took the Woodlands office from the worst office in the company to number one in profit—out of 88 offices in four states,” says Hamann, who didn’t finish college and at the time did not consider herself management material. She grew the Woodlands office from 12 agents to almost 100.
Having been married twice to men, Cindy was as surprised as anyone when she fell in love with a woman. Her brother, Robert Williamson, was gay, but she considered herself straight and quite conservative. “Republican, straight-laced—I didn’t realize that those feelings were even in me, even though I had a gay brother,” she explains, speaking adoringly of her brother who died of AIDS while only in his 30s. “He was a gorgeous young man—very flamboyant, and very brave coming out to my family.” After realizing she was gay, Hamann led a life of secrecy and hid in her work.
“None of my agents knew, and that was because of one reason: fear,” Hamann recalls. “I’d win trips as a top manager, and Lisa couldn’t go with me.” When they went to buy groceries in The Woodlands, she and Lisa would take two separate baskets in case they ran into someone from work. “I’ll tell you it was hard, but Lisa understood. She was not out at work at Dow, either.”
Hamann hid her personal life from friends and associates because of her fear of missing career opportunities. She felt she could not afford to be discriminated against if she was going to give her children the things she never had. “I wanted to send my kids to college because I didn’t get to. I wanted to be the best mother I could be,” she explains. “I fell in love with this person who led me to discover my sexuality. Then I was so curious, but I couldn’t date people around me. I remember going to the first gay bar in The Woodlands, and I literally hid under the table.”
While living in secrecy with Greer, Hamann enjoyed continued success managing and mentoring Realtors. She prided herself in knowing each of her agents personally, including their families. One day, at a regular sales meeting, she made a decision to share more with her coworkers than she’d ever shared before. She started the meeting by saying, “We’ve become this huge family, and today I’m not going to hide anymore. I’m going to start living my life openly as a lesbian.” She says she got a standing ovation. She then turned the meeting over to an associate manager and went to call Lisa to tell her what she had done. She completed her coming-out that day by making the same announcement on Facebook. Thinking back about the outpouring of support that followed, Hamann says “I got thousands of comments, and so many people shared their stories. But that’s not why I did it. I was tired of living a lie.”
Hamann is now the vice president of sales performance and recruiting for Heritage Texas Properties. Greer and Hamann both participate in LGBT trade organizations, and Hamann was an outspoken supporter of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance as a board member of HAR. She has also served as president of Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, and volunteers with the Montgomery County Women’s Shelter and as a camp counselor every year for Candlelighters’ Camp for All.
Hamann’s generosity and compassion has also extended to Houston’s homeless. She has personally touched the lives of hundreds living on the streets with “a blanket and a bottle of wine” at Christmas. It all began one year when she was feeling melancholy about spending Christmas alone because her children were with their dad. “I walked into Walmart and saw [a display] of blankets with Boone’s Farm strawberry wine right beside it. I bought 10 of each.” She drove from The Woodlands to Greenspoint and then downtown, giving the gifts to whoever she came upon who needed them. “I got a warm feeling that I’d done something amazing for these people. The next year I gave out 20 blankets and bottles, all by myself. The third year I did 30, and my children helped. They said I was crazy, and don’t ever do this again.”
But Hamann continued each year until she and some friends who helped her were not only giving out a hundred blankets and bottles of wine, but also food. Then the City passed an ordinance that requires anyone feeding more than six people to get written permission from the City or property owner. “I had a police officer follow me, and as I was giving blankets and hugs, he came up to me and he asked what I was doing. I had heard about the change in the law, and I told him I was handing out blankets and a bottle of wine. He said that was the nicest thing he’d ever heard, and continued with me. Almost every person on the street said ‘God bless you,’ and most were also helping someone else living on the street. I always felt that I was shielded, even if I was alone. I want to write a book some day about the individuals I met,” Hamann says. Regarding the City’s anti-feeding ordinance, she says, “That law took something away from people. It means that they can’t do a kindness when they want to. It’s sad, and it’s wrong.” Hamann says she believes that she helped some people who would never go to a shelter or some other organized place for help. She now adopts needy families during the holidays.
Hamann cannot explain everything about her life, or why she didn’t discover she was attracted to women until she was well into her 30s. She believes it could happen to anyone at any time. In her case, she says, “I just think it was God’s path for me.” Hamann’s children got the education she dreamed of for them. “I’m proud to say I have three teachers in the family—two with finance degrees, and three with their master’s degrees.” And because of her hard work while they were growing up, they have no college debt. She and her wife have recently achieved another goal by selling their home in Timbergrove so they can live full-time on their farm in Waller.
At 55, Hamann says she is proud of who she is. “Did I live a lie? Yes, but I wouldn’t change anything about my life—except [the fact that I never told] my brother that I was a lesbian before he died.” She believes he would have been proud of her. “My legacy is this: if I can make a difference, you can, too.”
Karen Derr is a Houston-based Realtor and the founder of Karen Derr Realtors, which sells both town and country properties. She writes and speaks about home and small-business topics.