The best thing about Tim Cook‘s coming out was what it was not. It did not come as the result of some sex scandal perhaps involving an employee. It was not an embarrassing disclosure after being caught in some public restroom or a park. It was not a grudging coming out after years of very public denials and the usual “my personal life is private” protestations. It did not even come with any grand pretensions to being a catalyst for changing hearts and minds in an acrimonious debate about same-sex marriage or discrimination laws. He was not getting some kind of tech equivalent of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award and feeling expansive.
One cannot even really say Tim Cook “came out,” for it implies he was in a closet all this time. But actually most people thought he was already out. But now that he has officially confirmed it, the reaction has been fairly ho-hum. There will be no grand boycott of Apple launched by conservatives. Republican senator Ted Cruz told CNBC: “Those are his personal choices. I’ll tell you. I love my iPhone. Listen Tim Cook makes personal choices and that’s his life.”
It’s only fitting that the most prominent openly gay CEO comes from Silicon Valley, from an industry that is famously more live-and-let-live when it came to personal lives, where companies often have LGBT groups. Another Tim, Tim Gill, the founder and chairman of Quark set up the Gill Foundation to fund the gay and lesbian movement. This is where much of workplace protections and rights of gay employees to be treated the same as heterosexual employees were forged.
And the Apple CEO’s coming out is the fruit of all those endeavours. As Cook himself wrote, “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.” This apple did not fall very far from the tree.
In that sense, Cook’s coming out was no great surprise, nor any great risk either to his professional career or to Apple’s stock price. But the same would not hold true if the head of some Wall Street investment firm or a big bank decided to come out. In businesses that are far more of an old boys’ club, coming out would still be a loaded issue. It’s unlikely that Cook’s coming out will precipitate a great rush out of corporate closets of America’s big firms.
But there is something to note in this coming out story. We tend to look for gay “icons” in the world of culture. We obsess about which film star might or might not be gay or bisexual because we are interested voyeuristically in the sex lives of stars. We speculate about the sexuality of writers because we want to mine their works for nuggets of their personal lives. And to a lesser extent we think about the sexuality of sports figures either because it’s so “unexpected” (a footballer), “stereotypical” (a diver), or so not-news (Martina Navratilova).
And all of these people resist those labels because they do not want to become the gay writer, the gay actor, the gay musician or the gay sportsperson. They do want their lives to be seen through that prism and only that prism. And they come out when they are either past their prime like a Ricky Martin or completely secure like an Elton John. Or like Freddie Mercury or Rock Hudson, they are outed by disease. Or it’s only an exceptional event that tends to push them out in front. Vikram Seth, a man famously guarded about his privacy decided to appear on the cover of India Today because he thought his stature could help the fight against Section 377 which criminalizes gay sex in India.
But while Tim Cook will no doubt be embraced as a gay role model by LGBT groups, he will not be a gay CEO in quite the same way as a writer might worry about being branded a gay writer. As an actor or a writer, the worry is whether the public will be able to see beyond the sexuality in the work they produce.
In that sense, his coming out, while quieter and less flashy than a showbiz coming out, matters far more. It is the coming out we need, adding another layer to what we know about Cook without defining his persona and coloring his work. Cook makes no apology for being gay. In fact, he calls it “God’s greatest gift,” because it made him more empathetic. But he is neither militant about it, nor defensive. It’s not his cross to bear. That actually has a resonance that we are unused to in coming out narratives.
We tend to look for our out celebrities in the arts and culture because we think culture is the true game-changer. But Cook’s coming out reminds us that gays and lesbians are in all kinds of professions. When leaders of companies that make iron and steel, detergents and tea, cell phones and clothing, decide to be open about their sexuality and then just go back to work as usual it makes for a powerful statement about the need to judge people by the work they do, not their sexuality.
And ultimately, that’s all any of us really want: to be recognized for the work we do every day and not be discriminated against because of the person we fall in love with. And Tim Cook is no exception.
An earlier version of this post appeared on the Huffington Post and was reprinted with permission.