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Why Tim Cook coming out is a critical step for the American workplace

October 30, 2014, 8:29 PM UTC
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook

Diversity rights advocates have been eagerly awaiting Apple CEO Tim Cook’s revelation that he is gay.

Not Cook, specifically, but someone—anyone—at the helm of a major publicly traded corporation. Until Thursday, no Fortune 500 chief executive had publicly acknowledged being gay, an omission that has silently pressured other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender professionals to hide or tone down their identity. That’s despite all the progress for LGBT individuals in other arenas, including entertainment, media, politics, the military, and even professional sports.

This absence reverberated throughout the business world. A Deloitte research study on how people downplay their minority status in the workplace, a practice known as “covering,” found the highest rates of such behavior among LGBT individuals: 83%, compared to 79% of black people, 66% of women, and 63% of Hispanic workers.

It’s even more striking when you consider the prevalence of LGBT affinity groups throughout Corporate America, firms’ support for gay marriage, and the widespread talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion among Fortune 500 human resources circles. For these programs and initiatives to move beyond lip service, more LGBT high-level executives must become more comfortable with being open about their sexual orientation.

“This moves us from 0% of the Fortune 500 CEOs being openly gay to 0.2%,” notes Deloitte study co-author Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University and author of Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. “It’s still a wonderful day and something to be celebrated. We have a huge way to go, as the numbers tell us, but hopefully at some point the tipping point is reached.”

What paved the way for Cook’s decision to come out? Changing U.S. attitudes, for one. The Pew Research Center found that 52% of Americans support gay marriage in 2014, up from 31% a decade ago. Gay marriage is now legal in 32 states.

Then there’s the undeniable reality that Cook is a white male who is worth more than $200 million personally and the head of the most valuable company in the world. He’s powerful enough to withstand backlash from his decision to come out as gay. His revelation certainly paves the way for rising executives at other Fortune 500 companies to be more comfortable being open about their sexuality, but it doesn’t eliminate the real financial and career risks they face when deciding how to manage their LGBT identities.

Even Cook isn’t immune from risk. Already, an anti-LGBT Russian politician has called for a lifetime ban on the Apple CEO entering Russia. Former BP CEO John Browne found professional doors closed to him after he was outed, although the circumstances were different.

Indeed, the Deloitte study found that LGBT professionals were more open about their sexual identity in the middle of their careers, being more likely to cover when just getting started and then again when they were aiming for jobs close to the C-suite. “A lot of times people are willing to be openly gay in a certain point in their life and go back into the closet when they become more senior,” Yoshino says. “As you rise in the organization, you’re dealing with other countries; you’re interfacing with other constituents. A lot are external so you have no idea to how they’re going to react.”

However, the track record of anti-gay blowback doesn’t suggest concern for Apple (AAPL) shareholders. A “Dump Starbucks” campaign in response to the coffee company’s support of gay marriage failed to dent profits. JCPenney’s gay-friendly advertisements and decision to stand by openly gay spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres also withstood the effects of a boycott.

Gay rights advocates and the media can encourage other LGBT CEOs to identify themselves as gay by not reducing Cook to simply the gay CEO of Apple. In his essay for Bloomberg Businessweek, Cook writes about the many other facets of his identity and how he struggled over coming out because of his desire for privacy.

“Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender,” Cook writes. “I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.”

He also describes being gay as a gift from God, which has made him more empathetic, given him insight into being in the minority, and made him more thick-skinned and confident.

That’s the kind of diversity of thought and perspective that underlies the inclusion programs that have proliferated across the business world. And while his announcement is just one step towards a more open C-suite and business culture, it’s undeniably an important one.