By coming out as gay, Tim Cook becomes the most influential and powerful CEO of any company to live openly, providing an example that was missing at the highest levels of the business world.
“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” Cook writes in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."
Even while in the closet, Cook had lobbied publicly for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, had marched in a San Francisco Pride parade, and his company had stood up in Arizona when Gov. Jan Brewer was deciding whether to provide a stunning religious exemption that many said would lead to discrimination against LGBT people.
The upper echelon of the business world is largely devoid of out CEOs. And in his op-ed, Cook acknowledged that his example is powerful:
"I believe deeply in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: 'Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’' I often challenge myself with that question, and I’ve come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important. That’s what has led me to today.
"For years, I’ve been open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the way they treat me. Of course, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences. Not everyone is so lucky."
"Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple."
That Cook is gay was an open secret in some ways. He was ranked number 2 this year on Out's annual Power List; he was No. 1 last year (but the magazine said it was difficult to maintain the top spot while he remained closeted). When Cook was named CEO after Steve Jobs stepped away, business media got into a public heated argument over whether it would be news if Cook were hypothetically gay, with some saying it shouldn't matter despite it being an enormous first. In recent months, during a discussion about why so many CEOs remained closested, one CNBC anchor had even let it slip on air that Cook is gay, assuming Cook had already come out only to be awkwardly corrected by his colleagues.
Cook says he hopes to maintain his privacy despite coming out: “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,” he writes, adding that in addition to being gay he’s also “an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things.”
Reaction from LGBT activists has already been glowing as groups move to hold up his example. Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin put it bluntly. "Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives," he said in a statement. "He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life. Tim Cook is proof that LGBT young people can dream as big as their minds will allow them to, whether they want to be doctors, a U.S. Senator, or even CEO of the world’s biggest brand."