Rainbow Warrior

10.30.14 5:59 PM ET

Tim Cook: Why ‘I’m Gay’ Isn’t Enough

Plaudits were showered on Apple’s CEO for coming out, but they miss the subtext of his declaration: The gay and powerful should use their power to effect change.

The story leading the news today is a man coming out as gay. Of course he’s not any man, but Tim Cook, CEO of the world’s most valuable company: Apple.

“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” Cook writes in Bloomberg Businessweek. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Neat opening move, Mr. Cook: invoke your own belief in God to neuter the religious bigots, and to make the point that your homosexuality is as inherent as heterosexuality.

Cook’s sexuality has been a matter of public record for some time (never denied), but it says something about the brand size of Apple, and—more piercingly—the dearth of openly gay CEOs and businesspeople at Cook’s level: the public declaration of his sexuality can still command headlines and lead the news agenda.

What has been overlooked in the rush to congratulate him is just how radical a clarion call for activism and campaigning Cook’s coming out is: every headline says “Tim Cook, I’m Proud To Be Gay,” conforming to the traditional narrative of these things—what they should really say is, “Tim Cook, Birth of a Gay Rights Radical.”

The really impressive thing about Cook’s coming out is that it is not just a hang-out-the-rainbow-flags celebratory event of the words being said, but a radical manifesto. For Cook, basking in public approbation, isn’t enough—the usual narrative with a high-profile coming out. Admirably, Cook makes clear he wants to use his power to challenge inequality and much worse still faced by LGBTs.

He writes that his coming out was spurred by a Martin Luther King Jr quote: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Cook says he often challenges himself with that question, and has come to realize that his desire for personal privacy has been holding him back from doing “something more important.”

While he has been lucky to work at Apple “that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences…not everyone is so lucky.”

His most radical statement of intent, and one which will be fascinating to see if he holds true to—and if so how practically and volubly, comes at the end: “We’ll continue to fight for our values, and I believe that any CEO of this incredible company, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, would do the same. And I will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up.”

If Cook is serious, then arguably he has just become—indeed made himself—the single most powerful and highest-profile advocate for gay equality globally. How he intends to practically parlay that will be fascinating to watch.

Apple, for example, is in talks to sell the iPhone in Iran, a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. Incidences of gay men being hanged in public have been graphically reported upon.

If Cook is to be taken at his word, one would expect him to make some public statement about Iran’s record, as he prepares to do business with the country. His stirring essay makes clear his desire to be an advocate and activist, but it does not specifically lay out how he intends Apple to do business with deeply homophobic countries like Iran.

Being gay, Cook says, has made him realize the obstacles facing other minority groups; while it has been “tough and uncomfortable at times,” it has also given him the confidence to follow his own path. “It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple.”

Cook then lists some areas of discrimination LGBTs routinely face: “Still, there are laws on the books in a majority of states that allow employers to fire people based solely on their sexual orientation. There are many places where landlords can evict tenants for being gay, or where we can be barred from visiting sick partners and sharing in their legacies. Countless people, particularly kids, face fear and abuse every day because of their sexual orientation.”

A few days ago, he criticized his home state of Alabama for its entrenched prejudice. Today, Cook writes: “I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

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Jonathan D. Lovitz, the spokesman for StartOut, the first national network of LGBT entrepreneurs, welcomed Cook’s declaration.

“While there have been substantial gains for the community in representation and visibility in politics, entertainment, journalism and now even sports, in too many places the corporate closet continues to flourish, and there are virtually no role models in the senior ranks of the business community. Today that changed with Tim.”

Whether Cook’s coming out will really be the brick that smashes “the pink ceiling” remains to be seen. Lovitz, quoting Cook’s essay, told The Daily Beast: “We should look at this as one more brick laid on ‘the sunlit path toward justice,’ and toward a more level playing field for everyone in America. Tim, as the most prominent out figure in business today, is guiding us all down that path.”

John Browne, the former chief executive of BP outed after a gay sex scandal in 2007, told me earlier this year the only way for the business world to change would be for more business people to come out. (Harvey Milk beseeched the same of gay people as the primary weapon against homophobia.)

“Remember you’re not alone,” Browne, author of The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, said. The business world was “changing slowly, but it’s still behind. Life is full of the presumption of heterosexuality: wherever you go, it’s around. It’s sort of enhanced in business.”

Cook emphasizes that he is many things—“an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic”—that means he, or anyone shouldn’t simply be defined by their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Yet Cook also proudly points to Apple’s advocacy work: for marriage equality in California, workplace equality, and against a much-criticized, and eventually torpedoed, anti-gay bill in Arizona.

Cook’s message is impressively double-edged: there are many things to me beside my sexuality, but my sexuality is very important to me, as is fighting for equality for those like me with less power.

The challenge facing Cook after writing his essay is less about being gay in the business world—that clearly does not concern him—-but in the challenge he has set himself very publically in the essay: to fight the good fight, to campaign and advocate for gay equality, and to fight discrimination. In a stroke, and if his words are genuine, Tim Cook has just become Gay Superman.

Cook has also set the bar higher—welcomingly higher—for celebrities and public figures coming out in the future. It is no longer enough to say the words, and expect a big hug from everyone congratulating you on your bravery and all that fawning blah. Now, as Cook intimates in his essay, it is incumbent on those in public life, with money, fame, and power, to use all that for the greater good—to be as inspired by the stirring call to action as Cook was by Dr. King.