(Reuters) – Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook on Thursday became the most prominent American corporate leader to come out as being gay, saying he was trading off his closely guarded privacy for the chance to help move forward civil rights.
The Alabama native, who has spoken out against discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, declared his sexual orientation in a magazine editorial, confirming a fact widely known in the close-knit Silicon Valley tech community but rarely discussed.
Cook’s announcement comes as gay marriage is becoming widespread, but the nation is still divided over gay rights. Same-sex marriage is legal in thirty-two U.S. states and in polls a majority support same-sex marriage, with a clear generational divide between younger Americans who are more likely to support it and older ones who are less likely.
“I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” Cook said in an article he wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek. (buswk.co/1DBoBfo)
He invoked civil rights luminaries Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in his long essay.
“I don’t pretend that writing this puts me in their league. All it does is allow me to look at those pictures and know that I’m doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”
The fact the chief executive of the most valuable U.S. publicly traded company felt he could disclose his sexual preference in such a public way, and with the backing of his company’s chairman, shows how times have changed.
Former BP Chief Executive Lord Browne, who kept his sexual orientation secret for decades, was forced to come out after a boyfriend made it public in 2007. He later resigned.
“By deciding to speak publicly about his sexuality, Tim Cook has become a role model, and will speed up changes in the corporate world,” Browne said in an email to Reuters on Thursday.
EFFECT ON BUSINESS
It remains to be seen whether Cook’s disclosure will affect the company’s business in conservative markets such as Russia, Iran and parts of Africa. Apple now gets more than half of its revenue from abroad, with China its second largest single market.
Cook said his desire for personal privacy had held him back.
Even in the United States, is not necessarily an easy decision to be open about being gay, civil rights advocates say.
“As the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to reveal he is gay, Tim helps make the business world a bit less homophobic,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of gay rights organization DignityUSA told Reuters in an email.
“I’m sure this will make it easier for some others in similar positions to consider coming out.”
While never broadcasting his sexual orientation, Cook has frequently spoken out against discrimination of the LGBT community, most recently this month when he addressed a group in his native Alabama.
A popular gay and lesbian magazine, Out, placed Cook at the top of its annual top 50 list of gay people in 2013. (bit.ly/10BjEra)
Now, he is at least the third CEO of a publicly listed U.S. company to come out of the closet.
C1 Financial Inc’s Trevor Burgess and IGI Laboratories Inc’s Jason Grenfell-Gardner have previously acknowledged that they are gay. (nyti.ms/1pxEhZn)
Cook’s disclosure was greeted by a flood of congratulatory comments on Twitter.
“I have so much respect for this man,” a person identifying himself as Andrew Clarke tweeted.
Apple Chairman Art Levinson said Cook’s announcement was “courageous.”
“(His) decision to speak out will help advance the cause of equality and inclusion far beyond the business world,” Levinson was quoted by CNBC as saying.
“On behalf of the board and our entire company, we are incredibly proud to have Tim leading Apple.”
Apple has a long history of supporting the LGBT community.
Earlier this year, the company criticized an Arizona bill that would permit businesses to refuse service on religious grounds, a measure that critics said could allow discrimination against gay people. (reut.rs/1rCCNhJ)
“…I will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up,” Cook wrote on Thursday.
“Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the way they treat me.”