Tim Cook coming out and paving the way

Elizabeth Klingen/Staff

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wrote a piece for Businessweek on Oct. 30 Thursday proclaiming, “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

It marks a political shift that one of the most powerful men at one of the most powerful companies in the world can come out without fearing that it will negatively impact his brand or his company’s profits. And the backlash was indeed minimal — with the exception of the predictably extremist and ridiculous Russian government, which reacted by taking down a statue of an iPhone — yep, that’s right, they had built a statue of an iPhone. Media coverage largely focused not on the fact that there is now an openly gay CEO but that there aren’t more of them.

Perhaps this speaks to the increased tolerance of the Milllenials or to the “creative and innovative” spirit of tech Cook himself credits. But the question on my mind while reading Cook’s statement was one of strategy.

In the past decade, the only other CEO of any publicly traded company large enough to be included in the S&P 500 to come out was John Browne of British Petroleum. In 2007, when Browne’s ex-partner leaked details about their relationship to a tabloid magazine, Browne lied about their relationship, denying that they had met online. Brown was subsequently tried — though not convicted — for perjury, and after the trial he stepped down from BP.

Cook’s coming out, by contrast, was voluntary, articulate and, most of all, intentional.

In my own life, I have wrestled with questions of coming out. Not so much whether I can safely do so — I am lucky to not have to worry about this for the most part — but whether I should need to. In the queer community I surround myself with, emphasis on coming out is often regarded as antiquated and out of touch.

Some argue that the emphasis on being openly gay ignores the fluidity of sexuality and marginalizes those who do not fit easily under the LGBT umbrella. Additionally, many queer-identifying people question why they should have to formally come out, while heterosexuality remains the default assumption.

I am sympathetic to these arguments, and I, too, am excited for the day when talking about my sexual orientation is trivial — about as much of a revelation as speaking of my preference for ravioli over penne pasta. Yet Cook’s statement makes explicit why he chose to come out — and why coming out remains culturally important.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others,” Cook writes. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

At first glance, this is a simple pay-it-forward argument, a reminder that the personal can be political. This, on its own, deserves credit. As a woman, I am grateful for those before me who fought against gender discrimination and made it possible for me to dream of occupying a position of power in politics. Many members of other marginalized groups can and do make similar statements of gratitude.

However, in the LGBT community, fighting can look different than it does for other minorities because many of us can choose to hide our sexual identity. And while those who fit stereotypes — the flamboyant, the nongender-conforming — often bear the brunt of physical and emotional violence, those with the privilege to pass as straight often have the most power to change others’ minds. In a society that glorifies professional athletes and Silicon Valley nerds, the Michael Sams and Tim Cooks of the world turn the most heads.

As a young queer woman with non-normative gender presentation, I don’t pass by any stretch of the mind. This used to be a subject of great consternation. When I shaved my head in high school, my father used to yell at me, afraid that I would miss out on opportunities because others would judge me for my appearance. These concerns stuck with me into college. I vividly remember squirming on a picnic table in the backyard of my co-op as my friend shaved the sides of my head. As she switched on the razor, I snapped at her not to bring the cut too close, afraid a sharp cut would make me seem “too queer to be professional.”

I realize these aesthetic anxieties are trivial in light of others’ struggles. I grew up in the Bay Area and have rarely experienced so much as harsh words thrown in my direction. But mini struggles over presentation represent to me small but persistent strands of internalized homophobia.

The last two years, I attended the Out for Undergrad Business Conference. We congregated in New York City with more than 200 LGBT students from across the country as well as LGBT professionals across multiple firms and industries who validated my decision to pursue finance. It was a unique space where though we were bonded together by sexual identity, the focus was distinctly not on sex.

Despite this support, at my sales and trading summer internship, I was still unmistakably in the minority. I felt accepted by both my peers and those senior to me, but it became clear to me that people must come out at work — at the least so that young queer interns will know they are not alone, at the most so that it will then be obvious, unavoidable fact that queer people are everywhere.

And yet, for all this conviction, it is also clear to me that people who look like Tim Cook and stand in his position bring forward change. People like me — people for whom “coming out” is often implied, or superfluous even — do not.

Cook ended his essay with the following statement: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”

Thank you, Tim, for paving the way.