Accolades are flowing today for Apple boss Timothy Cook, who publicly announced that he is gay in a brief essay in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. On Twitter Bill Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson lead a Mexican wave of admiration. If President Obama and the New York Times editorial board haven’t yet said their piece they soon will.
The delight in gay rights ranks is understandable. Cook is not only one of the first major business leaders globally to make their sexual orientation so public; the company he leads is the biggest, wealthiest and culturally coolest corporation on the planet. The effect of his move on young people is expected to be huge.
But what about the effect on other corporate leaders and public figures? Will they feel pressured, will they be forced to declare their stance on gay rights, and find their career in tatters if it turns out to be the wrong one?
This is what happened to Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla Firefox, after his appointment as its CEO. Somebody dug up the information that he had made a donation of $1000 to the Proposition 8 campaign against gay marriage in California and started a campaign to get him fired. When his colleagues turned against him he resigned.
Eich was doing his darnedest to be inclusive on this issue, but for him that meant a Mozilla that included people like himself who, though supporting gay civil rights, just couldn’t agree that marriage was one of them. It meant including in your mental landscape collaborators in places like Indonesia who, as he said, are “on the other side of this particular issue.” In an interview he said:
I don’t think it’s good for my integrity or Mozilla’s integrity to be pressured into changing a position. If Mozilla became more exclusive and required more litmus tests, I think that would be a mistake that would lead to a much smaller Mozilla, a much more fragmented Mozilla.
Eich regarded his views on marriage as something private that had nothing to do with the workplace, but he was not allowed that privacy.
Strangely enough, Cook gives the impression in his brisk essay that he would have preferred, if not privacy about his sexuality, since it was already widely known, then less publicity about it. His opening words:
Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy. I come from humble roots, and I don’t seek to draw attention to myself.
While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now.
I’ll admit that this wasn’t an easy choice. Privacy remains important to me, and I’d like to hold on to a small amount of it.
Well, fat chance. Already one (gay) journalist has indicated that there will now be an open season on “the most under-reported on chief executive in American corporate history.”
So why did Cook do it? Did he jump, or was he pushed? According to him, it was looking at the framed pictures of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy on the wall every morning as he came into work and hearing them ask the question, “What are you doing for others?”, that gradually forced him into taking a stand for LGBT people still struggling with discrimination and inequality. Especially “kids”.
But, given Apple’s history of supporting gay rights it seems quite likely that there was pressure from within the company and from groups like the Human Rights Campaign to make this gesture. After all, he has publicly promoted a bill before Congress that would, as Apple already does, explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal last December:
Protections that promote equality and diversity should not be conditional on someone’s sexual orientation. For too long, too many people have had to hide that part of their identity in the workplace.
And yet that part of his own identity was still partly hidden.
Still, he makes it clear in his essay that it is not his whole identity, nor even the most important part of it. He would rather be known, it seems, as the engineer who became CEO of a company that he spends virtually every waking hour thinking about. Or as somebody’s uncle, or a son of the South – or anything other than a gay icon.
I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.
That is, indeed, a state of affairs greatly to be desired, not only for Tim Cook and people who support gay marriage but for the Brendan Eichs of this world who do not.
The fact is that most, if not all, of the business people who have been persecuted over this issue had no record of discrimination against LGBT people as customers or employees. They were just getting on with doing what they were “best suited for and the work that brings them joy” when they were outed as “bigots” for refusing (usually in the mildest terms) to go along with the idea that a relationship between two people of the same sex could be a marriage.
Perhaps next time the Apple CEO looks at those pictures of MLK and Kennedy and hears the question, “What are you doing for others?”, he could give this beleaguered minority and their privacy a thought.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.