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Tim Cook’s inspirational announcement would have been unimaginable 20 years ago

Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly came out as gay in an editorial published by Bloomberg Businessweek on Thursday. Cook said he hopes to help move civil rights forward. (Video: Reuters)
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“I’m proud to be gay,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a Bloomberg Businessweek essay published Thursday morning. To no one’s surprise, Cook’s coming-out announcement has captured headlines and turned heads worldwide, notably among those in the business community and among young people who see Cook as a trailblazer for their own careers. Even I, a contemporary of Cook’s, paused for a few moments to realize just how far LGBT acceptance has come when a Fortune 500 CEO writes: “I consider being gay one of the greatest gifts God has given me.”

In a phone interview, Todd Sears, the founder of Out Leadership, a global strategic firm that advises corporations on LGBT issues, explained that Cook’s self-outing (“he was not forced, there was no scandal”) matters a great deal to Apple’s employees and the business community. “It says that you can be your whole self at a company like Apple and that a gay man can successfully lead the world’s most valuable company.”

Bob Witeck, a Washington marketing and business strategist who also advises corporations on LGBT issues, agreed: “What is sublime are the few words he chose with care and his stature. As a global business leader, he poured sunlight onto millions more people around the world, and bent the world’s economy itself towards equality and acceptance.”

Sears added: “Cook chose to do it because of the impact it would have on LGBT youth. His message: You can and will be successful if you’re out.”  Cook himself said as much in his editorial: “[T] he public figures who have bravely come out have helped change perceptions and made our culture more tolerant…. Countless people, particularly kids, face fear and abuse every day because of their sexual orientation.”

And Cook’s message is resonating with young people already. Daniel Kort, an undergraduate at Duke University, where Cook attended business school, told me: “As an aspiring professional, I sometimes worry that my outness may limit my career prospects. Tim Cook’s coming out gives me a great deal of hope that I too can become a leader in the workplace — something I wasn’t so sure of when I was growing up closeted.” Jin-Soo Huh, a 27-year-old IT professional in Chicago, added: “To have a CEO of a major corporation like Apple come out shows that many barriers are coming down. I know I grappled with coming out to my colleagues because I was concerned about their reactions. Cook coming out definitely gives me more confidence to be out at work.”

Cook, 53, began his career at a time when corporate role models for gay men and women were virtually nonexistent. In my career in publishing, across many different companies, I have never had the benefit of a mentor or role model who was LGBT. To the contrary, in one of my first jobs – at Time Inc. in the early ’90s — I was told by a senior-level editor to stay in the closet if I wanted my career to advance. Back then, there were no domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples, no job protections based on sexual orientation (much less gender identity), and so much less societal acceptance overall. I chose to leave the company. For those who criticize Cook for taking too long to take this public step, let’s remember how far he’s come — literally, from his home state of Alabama, where he gave a speech Monday challenging the state to do better on gay rights. And metaphorically — how quickly the world has changed in just a generation.

How wonderfully ironic, then, that Cook noted that his sexual orientation, rather than an obstacle, has helped him to lead Apple:

“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.”