by Steve LeVine
Former BP CEO John Browne was so private about his homosexuality that it emerged only when an estranged lover divulged their relationship to a tabloid. In his attempt to block publication, he lied to a judge about how he had met the man, and ended up being forced to resign. Today, however, Browne, now a member of Britain’s House of Lords, spoke out forcefully in favor of a proposed law making gay marriage legal in the country.
Browne first spoke openly about his sexuality in a 2010 book called Beyond Business. But his political push, made in an eloquent piece in today’s Financial Times, is the first such forceful defense of gay rights by a major figure in the global oil industry, in which a homophobic environment persists. On May 29, ExxonMobil shareholders rejected an explicit company ban on discrimination against gays, the sixteenth such vote at the oil company’s annual meetings.
In his FT piece, Browne writes that he kept his sexuality secret for decades “out of fear” that disclosure could damage his career and the company. He was regarded as his country’s greatest businessman, but he hid his personal life as a grave threat that could bring everything down.
It all went back to growing up in a different time, in which “homosexuality was illegal. Men went to prison, boys were expelled and individuals would disappear, leaving hushed speculation,” Browne says.
Now, though, society has changed, and with it should go laws preventing gays from marrying. A big reason is economics—“anything that fosters an inclusive environment makes good business sense.” The House of Lords today has taken up a law legalizing gay marriage that has already passed the House of Commons, and the outcome is not clear.
“If [the ability to marry] helps gay people to be themselves in both their private and professional lives, it will eliminate one more barrier to a true corporate meritocracy and deserves recognition as a matter of strategic importance in the global market for talent,” Browne writes.
Note: This article was changed after publication to include a mention Browne’s lying to a judge as the reason for his resignation.