Don’t ignore Tim Cook’s sexuality

By Felix Salmon
August 25, 2011
Tim Cook is now the most powerful gay man in the world. This is newsworthy, no?

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Tim Cook is now the most powerful gay man in the world. This is newsworthy, no? But you won’t find it reported in any legacy/mainstream outlet. And when the FT‘s Tim Bradshaw did no more than broach the subject in a single tweet, he instantly found himself fielding a barrage of responses criticizing him from so much as mentioning the subject. Similarly, when Gawker first reported Cook’s sexuality in January, MacDailyNews called their actions “petty, vindictive, and just plain sad.”

But surely this is something we can and should be celebrating, if only in the name of diversity — that a company which by some measures the largest and most important in the world is now being run by a gay man. Certainly when it comes to gay role models, Cook is great: he’s the boring systems-and-processes guy, not the flashy design guru, and as such he cuts sharply against stereotype. He’s like Barney Frank in that sense: a super-smart, powerful and non-effeminate man who shows that being gay is no obstacle to any career you might want.

One of the issues here is that most news outlets cover Cook as part of their Apple story, and Cook’s sexuality is irrelevant to his role at Apple. And so the other story — the fact that the ranks of big-company CEOs have just become significantly more diverse — is being overlooked and ignored. And that’s bad for the gay and lesbian community more broadly.

The institution of the closet is one of fear — one where people would rather be ignored than noticed, because they fear the negative repercussions of being known to be gay. It’s an institution which Cook, like any gay man born in 1960, knows at first hand. But now the risk of being ignored is bigger in the other direction: if the world can’t see gay men and women in all their true diversity, if the only homosexuals they know of are the flamboyant ones on TV, then that only serves to perpetuate stereotypes.

As the Apple story moves away from being about Steve Jobs and becomes much more about Tim Cook, we’re going to see a lot of coverage of Cook, the man. He is, after all, not just one of the most powerful gay men in the world; he’s one of the most powerful people in the world, period. The first instinct of many journalists writing about Cook will be to ignore the issue of his sexuality. It’s not germane to his job, they’re only writing about him because of the job he holds, and therefore they shouldn’t write about it.

On top of that, Cook is not exactly open about his sexuality, and Apple has never said anything about it. Cook’s formative years, professionally speaking, were the 12 years he spent at IBM between 1982 and 1994 — and at that company, in those days, coming out was contraindicated from a career-development perspective. Mike Fuller, a gay VP at IBM, told the Advocate in 2001 that he knew “IBM employees who worked for the company in the 1980s who told me they left IBM because they weren’t comfortable coming out at work”; this comes as little surprise. After all, the years that Cook spent at straight-laced IBM coincided with the height of the AIDS panic, when people were worried about sharing toilet seats with homosexuals. It would be hard to come out at any company in that kind of atmosphere.

But thankfully we’ve moved a very long way from those days. Homosexuality is no longer something shameful, to be coy or secretive about — especially not when you’ve risen to the very top of your profession. In fact, it’s incumbent upon a public-company CEO not to be in the closet.

Four years ago — a long time itself, in the history of gay rights and public acceptance thereof — John Browne resigned as CEO of BP under a shameful cloud. The reason for his downfall was not that he was gay, but rather that he was in the closet. As I explained at the time, in trying desperately to remain comfortably in the closet, he ended up lying repeatedly to the UK High Court – and that is why he had to resign.

Back then, there were no public-company CEOs on Out magazine’s gay power list; this year, Cook topped the list even before he became CEO of Apple. Keeping his sexuality a secret is no longer an option. And so the press shouldn’t treat it as though it’s something to be avoided at all costs. There’s no ethical dilemma when it comes to reporting on Cook’s sexuality: rather, the ethical dilemma comes in not reporting it, thereby perpetuating the idea that there’s some kind of stigma associated with being gay. Yes, the stigma does still exist in much of society. But it’s not the job of the press to perpetuate it. Quite the opposite.

Update: For a better and more heartfelt version of this post, read Joe Clark from back in February: “When you tell us it’s wrong to report on gay public figures,” he writes, “you are telling gays not to come out of the closet and journalists not to report the truth.”


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I can’t believe a news organization would report something like this.

Posted by DSSnFLA | Report as abusive

That an article like this should cause such passionate reactions suggests that yes, this is something that should be discussed. I’m sorry for Tim Cook in a way, since he’s the flagship here, but we need people like him to point to with pride.

If only it was as easy to be openly transgender.

Posted by LazyJay | Report as abusive

comparing Tim Cook to Barney Frank is a joke and an insult – it’s equivalent to comparing Ferdinand Magellan to the guy operating a boat on the pirates of the caribbean ride at disneyland

Posted by davidgekko | Report as abusive

Thanks Salmon for the important news.

The APA was right years ago in categorizing homosexuality as a treatable disorder. And its just as clear now to many who sense a reclamation of our social principles and boundaries is overdue (vis a vis. Look at how far we have come with same sex marriage) Some of us haven’t yet been compromised by political correctness and populist views that contravene medical facts, extensive medical research and available psychological and medical treatments.

So why are psycho-sexual disorders given special treatment? Because boundaries of any kind – even if they are essential to the function of a healthy society, are an enemy of liberal idealism. And the liberals will stop at nothing to eliminate all boundaries, to wit same sex marriage becoming their latest take down.

Frankly, Felix had so many men not permitted their esteem to be so consumed by their “sexual identity” we would have had dealt properly with the issue, advancing treatments and becoming a far healthier culture for it. Its called dealing with an medical issue intelligently and not in way it was done — politically. So in an sexually distressed culture such as the one we now have, boundaries are even more precariously blurred and everything social convention and truth is seen as untrustworthy.

So the fact is this. We need to treat disorders not celebrate them. Unless of course you are using any pet issue as a ruse to push your permissive idealism on others. Thanks for that Salmon, and be certain to congratulate yourself. In the long run liberalism cant hold its own except by inflaming and beating a non-issue. And you’re moving social progress not forward as you claim, but another step backward.

A healthy society should insist that those affected seek effective treatment of it, just like any disorder. Why is it that being born with a homosexual affective disorder is society’s issue and no longer an issue that needs to be responsibly dealt with by the person affected with it? No reason to celebrate a treatable disorder any more than one should celebrate failing to treat any disorder.

Firm and stable gender boundaries provide our society a very important modicum of cultural stability it needs, certainly now with the family structure in ruin mainly from progressive ideals.

Posted by Kanapapa | Report as abusive

And his sexuality will affect Apple’s bottom line how? OK, it’s out there now and Reuters is large enough so that “Tim Cook” and “gay” will be more obvious in Google searches. Pat yourself on the back, you self-justifying, self-aggrandizing self-promoter!

Congratulations. You came up with an article and title that jumped the shark, managing to elbow your way through the articles talking about how wonderful Steve Jobs has been using a well-honed modern journalistic tool: prurience.

But you can also look at gay in a few ways. First off, sure, a closet is a liability. Fine. But he was already OUT of the closet, even if various news agencies (using this odd concept that we call “good taste”) forbore to wave an executive’s sexuality around when talking about 1. the sickness and resignation of an industry leader, and 2. whether the new CEO would do a good job and keep stock prices up. So that leaves two things: sexuality as used in a political sense (e.g. to make a statement) or sexuality as performed in one’s home.

Cook has clearly not decided to take a flag-waving path, nor does he have to. Frankly, the level of “fabulosity” in anybody who can exist at IBM for an extended length of time is very low. So let the guy do what he does best, why don’t you?

And then we come to what goes on the bedroom. And Mr. Salmon, if you’re going to start reporting at the prurient level, linking sexuality to business prowess, I would encourage you to go all out. I can think of ANY NUMBER of business achievers whose name can fit into the “Don’t Overlook XYZ’s Sexuality” headline. Or what about those low-achieving sleazebags in Congress?

In short, I think that perhaps you should leave off of financial reporting and start a new column in, say, “Gawker.” Because, pretty words aside, the topic of this post belongs there.

Posted by KateSanford | Report as abusive

It doesn’t appear he was in the closet–if he was, then I would have an issue with this story (unless he was hypocritically in the closet).

So, like it or not, and many of you don’t, it’s newsworthy. IMO, it’s most newsworthy because GLBT people don’t have full civil rights, so if a gay man, who is in many important respects a second-class citizen, also happens to be the CEO of the most valuable company in the world it might help shine even more light on such inequality.

Posted by sb303 | Report as abusive

I’m confused, How does Tim’s sexuality matter at all? I respect him as a person and his role at apple. The title alone is crazy “Don’t ignore Tim Cook’s sexuality”. WTF does that mean? That is the problem with this world, we care about crap that doesn’t really matter at all. Tim being gay isn’t making or breaking my day. Would you post ” Lets not forget someone is black”? Get a life!!! And in regard to the UPDATE!! No, its not wrong to report about gay public figures. Its wrong to make that the basis and topic of your report!!

Posted by Darkniz | Report as abusive

When Mr. Salmon writes, “He’s like Barney Frank in that sense: a super-smart, powerful and non-effeminate man who shows that being gay is no obstacle to any career you might want.”, I have to ask myself (and Mr. Salmon) “What planet are you living on?”. Tim Cook is clearly on operational genius. Barney Frank, on the other hand, is a fat, stupid, ignorant member of Congress. And, yes, he is also effeminate.

Posted by Ethan129 | Report as abusive

I agree with your overall argument Felix, that its important to discuss Cook’s sexuality (in other words, its naive to think we’re in some ‘post-closet’ world where his sexuality doesn’t matter, and yes, discussing this has positive implications in terms of role modelry) but is it nitpicking of me to a feel a bit irritated by your premise for WHY he makes a good role model? You say:

Certainly when it comes to gay role models, Cook is great: he’s the boring systems-and-processes guy, not the flashy design guru, and as such he cuts sharply against stereotype. He’s like Barney Frank in that sense: a super-smart, powerful and non-effeminate man who shows that being gay is no obstacle to any career you might want.

Q. What if Cook was a flaming, flamboyant systems-and-processes EFFEMINATE guy? Or, for that matter, a boring systems-and-process effeminate man. A. He probably wouldn’t have his current job. As you indicate, being gay is probably not a career obstacle in a lot of contexts these days, as long as it is kept neatly and privately contained, and isn’t visible in the form of effeminacy. This is called ‘effeminophobia’ and if you think it isn’t connected to ‘homophobia’, think again.

Posted by DionKagan | Report as abusive

This kind of reporting is soooo pathetic. But unfortunately expected. You know apparently you didn’t learn anything from Steve. It’s not about race, gender, or sexual orientation, etc. It’s about building insanely great products. And I would go one step further, and that’s what Buddha did, it’s about being insanely great – or enlightened. It’s not about some bs socio-political identity. That’s about hiding in the group. Be a person. Be the greatest you, you can be !!

Posted by creatingbliss | Report as abusive

I think who have a tendency to homosexuality has a unusual characteristics compared to normal person.
They think, determine, behave and evaluate most situations differently from normal person.
I doubt whether that kind of life pattern could be a source of innovative creativity or not.
Anyway, don’t you think it’s meaningful that there is a word of Jobs “think different!” which brought various kind of innovative creatures to the world.

Posted by moon-like | Report as abusive

So, what about my sexuality? When an full featured article on Reuters about it?
Why the sexuality of gays is such important, and ours not?

Posted by net4u | Report as abusive

Shame on you M. Salmon, this is not journalism at all, this is gossip.

I suggest, for a better understanding of this article, and to be honest as you talk about others sexuality, that you M. Salmon tell us about your sexuality, are you gay? Straight? It makes no difference and you would write this article thé same way in either case? So why bother about Tim Cook sexuality… To help the gay community because, as you say in your article, people’s mentality has evolved? Then read some of the comments here and you’ll see your are totally wrong.

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Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

So can someone tell me why anyone could possibly care what this Felix Salmon thinks about, basically, anything?

Posted by Beach100 | Report as abusive

So can someone tell me why anyone could possibly care what this Felix Salmon thinks about, basically, anything?

Posted by Beach100 | Report as abusive

This is a great piece of work and I could not agree more. The points made herein are important.

As a gay man, I always am happy to hear about other successful members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Also, entering the business world is intimidating, so I thank God above for trail-blazers like Tim Cook.

I am so proud of Tim Cook and I aspire to be just like him some day.

Posted by JakubR | Report as abusive

Seriously, people? If you don’t like what is being said, all I can say is “F*ck off”. No one is holding you at gunpoint to read the article, nor are they forcing you to like it. If you don’t agree with it, go somewhere else and do something else. Don’t make your bigoted opinion ruin the article for those who actually want to enjoy it.

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