Other than Russia's notorious anti-gay activist Vitaly Milonov calling for a “lifetime ban” on Tim Cook's travels, the reactions to the Apple CEO's coming out Thursday were mostly predictable and tame. Social media was full of praise, as were liberal politicians. Most conservatives kept mum, except for “iPhone-loving” Ted Cruz, who dismissed Cook's orientation as “his personal choice.”
And why should there be any hoopla? It's 2014, after all. Same-sex marriage is now legal for a majority of the U.S. population. Coming out isn't the big deal it once was even five years ago, especially for a CEO long rumored to be gay and who never really hid his sexuality. Sure, Apple is one of the largest, most widely respected companies in the world, but Cook will presumably just be joining a list of other Fortune 500 CEOs who have come out.
Except he isn't. He is the list. According to the Human Rights Campaign, no other Fortune 500 CEO has publicly declared himself or herself to be gay. A recent CNBC article about “CEOs who are openly gay” lists all of seven people, three of who are former CEOs. So when the head of the most iconic technology company in the world goes on record as being gay, it's a big deal.
But the fact that Cook came out is perhaps less noteworthy than the way he did it. In an essay in Bloomberg Businessweek, Cook describes being gay as “one of the greatest gifts God has given me.” He then goes on to explain what those gifts are: a deep understanding of being in the minority, greater empathy, confidence to follow his own path and rise above adversity, and the “skin of a rhinoceros.” By declaring his sexuality a gift from God, Cook turns on its head a longstanding notion of religious conservatives, many of whom continue to consider homosexuality an “affliction” and who claim to “love the sinner and hate the sin.”
It is this list of attributes which Cook takes “pride” in, and in some ways offers a richer definition of what it means to be gay and proud: not just a celebration of an orientation, but a celebration of how the struggles associated with that orientation have made him a better person. The adversity that gay people face, Cook seems to be saying, makes them better people: more compassionate, better able to adjust and persevere.
Will more CEOs follow in Cook's wake? Some seem to think so, but I wonder if Cook may be too untouchable and iconic a figure to really inspire a spate of other CEOs to come out. Silicon Valley in general, and Apple in particular, have long been pioneers when it comes to LGBT rights. The cultures they inhabit are ones of inclusion and tolerance. To expect that the CEOs in other industries, where the corporate culture isn't nearly as open or tolerant, to out themselves because of Cook may be wishful thinking.
The corporate world in America is still male-dominated, and predominately white. A great deal of CEOs may be adverse to coming forward publicly about their sexuality since it could be seen as a political statement, something which may upset some of their customers. Others may be wary of being shut out of a boys network still too traditional or conservative to allow gay men and women to join. There is a canyon of difference between having non-discrimination policies on the books, which 91 percent of Fortune 500 Companies have, and being welcoming of a gay CEO. Longstanding stereotypes of gay men being weak, passive or inferior may still hold, especially in places where so few people are openly gay. Considering all these factors, it's no wonder why many CEOs, even those who are comfortable with their sexual orientation, may still choose not to declare it publicly. It's simply not a risk worth taking.
Professional sports provides perhaps the most relevant analogy. Michael Sam's coming out was supposed to usher a wave of other pro athletes declaring themselves as gay, but that has yet to happen. If anything, the anticlimactic last few months of Sam's career may have served to only keep more people in the closet.
Furthermore, Apple is one of the most internationally recognized brands in the world, and for a lot of people outside the U.S., being gay just isn't OK. One has to wonder how this news will play in places where homophobia is the norm. Apple is already a presence in many places in the Middle East, and plans on opening one of its largest stores in Dubai. It also hopes to sell its products in Iran if trade relations between the U.S. and Iran ever normalize. Should Apple encounter any resistance because of Cook's declaration, I imagine many CEOs might think twice about following suit.
Which is not to take away from the importance of this announcement. Any person in such a prominent position who comes out can only be good news for the LGBT community. As Cook wrote, "Countless people, particularly kids, face fear and abuse every day because of their sexual orientation." His essay may inspire those people. But we'll probably have to wait much longer before we see its impact on corporate America.