The coming out of Apple chief Tim Cook: This will resonate

Written by New York Times | Updated: Nov 2 2014, 04:08am hrs
Tim Cooks declaration on Thursday that Im proud to be gay made him the first publicly gay chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. But Cook isnt just any chief executive. And Apple isnt any company. Its one of the most profitable companies in the Fortune 500 and ranks No 1 on the magazines annual ranking of the most admired companies.

As Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, put it, Hes chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.

Trevor Burgess, the openly gay chief executive of C1 Financial in Florida, and one of the first publicly gay chief executives of a public company, said Tim Cook used the metaphor of laying a brick on the path towards justice. But, This is more like 600 million bricks, Burgess said. He has the most influential voice in global business.

Given widespread rumours that he was gay, including being ranked No 1 on Out magazines list of the most powerful gay people last year, the fact that Cook is gay is less surprising than his willingness to publicly acknowledge and embrace it.

He certainly made the announcement from a position of strength: Apple just completed the most successful product introductions in its history, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and reported record cash flow earlier this month. Apples latest fiscal year was one for the record books, Cook told investors.

Still, Cook was plainly reluctant, and, as he put it in his essay in Bloomberg Businessweek, I dont seek to draw attention to myself. But, he wrote, he came to the realisation that 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 its worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

Although Cook and Blankfein are professionally close (they were together in China last week), and Blankfein has publicly championed gay rights, they had never discussed Cooks sexual orientation. I dont talk about my sexual predilections, and if anybody asked it would be jarring, Blankfein said. No one owes the public such a deep view of his personal life. People underestimate how hard this is. But someone had to be first. For Tim, this was a commitment to make life easier and better for others. It was a generous and courageous thing to do.

Its also something that was unthinkable when Allan Gilmour was chief financial officer and a board member at Ford, Gilmour said. Companies didnt want controversial executives, he recalled. As a gay man, he kept his own sexual orientation a closely guarded secret, he said, but there were rumors. He was single and had never married. He retired in 1995 at age 60 after he was twice passed over for the top job.

Cooks announcement is historic and its wonderful, Gilmour said. Progress has been erratic, but its major. Gilmour came out to a local newspaper in 1996, returned for a stint as the openly gay vice chairman at Ford, and served as president of Wayne State University and on numerous corporate boards. He recently married his partner, Eric Jirgens, in Vermont.

On Thursday, he sent Cook an email thanking him for his courage and leadership. He added: I found, after I outed myself in a poorly planned interview, that my life had a new, and wonderful, dimension. I didnt have to dissemble, lie, exaggerate, change the subject, etc. I was what I was.

Blankfein sent an internal memo on Thursday to Goldman Sachs employees, praising Cooks eloquent statement and stressing the importance of a workplace that celebrates and embraces peoples differences.

Todd Sears, the founder of Out on the Street, which promotes gay and lesbian leadership in the financial industry, and who has been encouraging gay chief executives to come out, said Cooks statement might have even more impact outside the US.Sixty percent of Apples sales are outside the United States, he said. People love Apple products. Its the biggest company on the globe. There are 78 countries where being gay is illegal, and in a third of those, its punishable by death. What are those countries going to do when Tim Cook comes to visit

Cooks essay also seemed carefully drafted to be inclusive, to embrace anyone who feels different or excluded, which could broaden its impact far beyond the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Cook was wonderfully candid about why it was difficult for him to come out, said Kenji Yoshino, a constitutional law professor at New York University and co-author of Uncovering Talent: a New Model for Inclusion.

Professor Yoshino said: We should honor these individuals as the pioneers they are. But one way we do so is to let them know that we will not reduce their stories to that one narrative. So in my next presentation, which I am about to give in an hour, I will happily adjust the gay CEO statistic up to 0.2%, but underscore that the movement has occurred today thanks to the nature lover and sports fanatic Tim Cook.