Brenna Penrod calls them “megaphone conversations,” the ones where she’s trying to get an anti-gay protestor to put down the bullhorn and talk about beliefs, fears and truths around LGBTQ+ rights and culture. This year, as President of Zillow’s LGBTQ+ employee Pride Network, Penrod is asking for allies to take her place in those conversations — and not just on the courthouse steps.
“An active ally is that person who’s willing to step up to support us, in public and private,” says Penrod. “Someone who has the education behind them to understand and explain to people what the LGBTQ+ community is going through.”
Zillow is listed on two of the nation’s most prestigious workplace equality indexes: Bloomberg’s 2021 Gender-Equality Index and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index 2021, on which the company got a perfect 100 score. Penrod, who is a manager on Zillow’s Connections Team, is leading the company’s Pride Network to do more to advance LGBTQ equality. The group is making allyship a major focus of its Pride month activities, promoting classes available to Zillow employees, as well as Q&As and tips on how to become an active ally.
“There are states where I could be fired for being gay. Once people understand, they often want to help.” — Brenna Penrod
“An ally’s presence means a lot, but it’s their voices that we really need,” says Penrod. “We need our allies to explain to people what the LGBTQ+ community is going through, because if we look at social justice movements in history, it’s generally not until allies step up and amplify our voices that real change happens.”
Real change happens in small groups, says Penrod, in conversations with friends or family members. “I talk about why we want to pass the Equality Act, because many people, even some allies, don’t understand there are no explicit federal statutory housing or employment protections for people who identify as LGBT, that there are states where I could be fired for being gay.” Once people understand, says Penrod, they often want to help.
Penrod says Zillow is by far the most inclusive company she’s ever worked for. What surprises her most is the number of Zillow employees who have come out to her personally. “I’ll get a Slack saying ‘hey, I just want to talk to you about something really quick’ and then they’re telling me their story and asking questions,” she says. “It’s amazing that Zillow is a safe enough place to do that.”
More amazing to Penrod is that allies are creating safe places for their LGBTQ+ colleagues. Sue Dolquist is one of them. “I’ve been mentoring a couple of people who have come my way in the past week, having trouble with their parents accepting them,” she says. Dolquist is Senior Director in Zillow Brokerage Operations. She’s also mother to three sons in their 20s; the oldest is gay, the middle is straight, and her youngest son identifies as a transgender gay male.
“They don’t get the support that they deserve, to be seen — not as gay or trans, but as, ‘I see you, the person.’” — Sue Dolquist
“My oldest son identifying as gay was a non-event,” for Dolquist, she says. But understanding and accepting her trans son was a journey that took a couple of years. “There’s no shortcut to processing your reaction. There were definitely hurt feelings and ’I wish you’d understand me more’ on both sides.”
Dolquist talked through one difficult experience with Zillow Pride Network members: a time that she referred to her son using she/her pronouns when talking with an old acquaintance who didn’t know about her son’s transition. “I told my Pride friends I felt I betrayed my son, and one responded, ‘the day will come when you are truly proud of your child; you’re almost there.’”
That day has come, Dolquist says, which is why it’s important for her to encourage more people to be allies to the LGBTQ+ community, “because they don’t get the support that they deserve, to be seen — not as gay or trans, but as, ‘I see you, the person.’”
Kristina Adamski knows how important ally support can be. She’s Vice President of Corporate Relations at Zillow. Early in her career, Adamski worked for a U.S. company in Shanghai. A friend invited her and several other expats to a Pride event. “He had not come out to his family in New York, and then all his straight friends in China came out to support him,” she says. “He was so surprised that we were there backing him. All the emotion that came out of him — it just felt amazing.”
“Even if you’re from a family that wasn’t as accepting, you can educate yourself about equity and belonging.” — Kristina Adamski
From that point on in her career, Adamski has been involved in LGBTQ+ employee resource groups, and is now an executive sponsor of the Zillow Pride Network. “Having that V.P. title has some privilege and influence behind it. That’s why it’s important for me to be involved in the Pride network, because I’m sitting in rooms, virtual ones, where other folks may not be, where I can be an advocate and an ally.”
Sometimes advocacy means having tough conversations with people outside the LGBTQ+ community who make inappropriate jokes or comments. “You can say ‘listen, I may have been in your shoes once,’” says Adamski, “’but I’ve taken the opportunity to educate myself and talk to folks in the community. I understand how they think and feel, the challenges they face, and I’m encouraging you to do the same.’”
Adamski urges leaders inside and outside Zillow to be a voice for underrepresented communities, even ones they might not have a personal connection with. “I’ve been an ally since childhood, because my parents were,” she says. “But even if you’re from a family that wasn’t as accepting, you can educate yourself about equity and belonging.
“The longer you’re an ally, the easier and more meaningful it becomes.”