In a country in which you can be fired solely on the basis of your sexual orientation and on a planet in which some nations will imprison, beat, or kill you for it, Tim Cook publicly writing about being gay is a powerful thing. And it has nothing to do with Apple as a firm; rather, it's that he's the chief executive of one of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet, one that does business in almost every country. He didn't just say in public what he says was known more privately; he wrote that he was proud to be gay, "among the greatest gifts God has given me."
I was in tears reading his essay, not for myself, because I have a lot of checkboxes ticked off in my life that let me sit above the routine harassment, discrimination, and abuse that many people experience every day, and that deny them partners, security, housing, jobs, and happiness. I thought about the high rate of suicide that afflicts people who identify in the LBGTQ continuum, and of Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign designed to give them hope and find mentors and peers and support. I thought about friends that have come out over the years, and the issues they faced in their families and among peers.
Tim Cook is saving lives by taking something that wasn't secret (as he describes it), but wasn't public, and letting the world in. He may not change a single mind about the acceptability of his orientation; i don't think that's what it's about. What it does is give hope and inspiration for people to be themselves, with no top on their aspirations. Barack Obama in the White House didn't solve anything to do with racism; in fact, some people are more deeply entrenched in their bigotry because we have a black president. But the fact that it happened, that it's no longer off limits — that's what unbounds the future.
By having someone powerful to point to, the powerless can identify and take heart, and that shakes the power structures in which shame and oppression harm all of us. There is so much more work to do; so much more injustice to fight and fairness to persist in insisting upon. But it's nice to have such a big line marked in the sand, and stride across it.
I read two wonderful, personal stories in the tech press about Cook's public announcement. One is by Casey Newton at The Verge:
It is one thing for the media to whisper to one another, or to post on their blogs, that the CEO of America’s most valuable company is a gay man. And it is a quite another for the man himself to step up to the microphone, with confidence and grace, and tell us himself. We knew Cook was gay; what we didn’t know is how he felt about it. Or, at a time when being gay is still very much a political act, what he planned to do with it.
Now we know.
Kara Swisher, arguably one of the most influential technology journalists in this country, and the co-founder with Walt Mossberg of re/code, has been public about her orientation for some time, and wrote about her complicated feelings over the years about how to discuss her expectation that Tim Cook was gay. She considered in 2013 asking him at the D conference, "What’s it like to be the most powerful gay executive in the world?" She opted against it:
I thought: Would this just be a sandbagging grab for attention? Why exactly did I care? Did it matter to his job if he were public about his sexual preference? And, while it is always a good thing to have another iconic gay person be public, wasn’t it his choice as to when that would happen?
It's a really beautiful essay, and she relates her own experience thusly:
It’s hard to explain to someone who has not had to come out what prompts that feeling, after living in the closet for a lifetime. While everyone searched yesterday for some kind of dramatic reason for the Cook declaration, it’s a fairly simple equation, even if you are out to friends, co-workers and family, as Cook apparently has been:
You get tired of lying. You get tired of hiding. You get tired of not saying.
I hope this makes a difference in the lives of people today — that it makes those who fear their own identities more confident to express them, and that people who could be their allies stand firmer in their support. I hope, but don't know, that Cook's essay is a watershed moment; history will tell us that. The spread of marriage equality at this point in time was something I never anticipated.
The best part, perhaps, was trying to explain to my children, ages 7 and 10, why I was sobbing over Cook's words. They understand some of what it's about, but with them growing up in Seattle in a polyamorous household and with friends who have two moms or two dads (or divorced parents with same-sex or more complicated partnership arrangements), they don't understand why it's a big deal. They're inside our privilege bubble, but also (at these ages, and I hope forever) don't differentiate other people by personal characteristics.
To them, Tim Cook is fine whatever part of himself he's shared with he world. "That's great," they said, and then asked about new iPads.