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Why Tim Cook’s sexuality wasn’t a topic of conversation before now

October 30, 2014, 5:33 PM UTC
Bloomberg Photos Review Of 2013
Bloomberg's Best Photos 2013: Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., center, walks through a hallway during a break of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Apple Inc. used "loopholes" to avoid paying $9 billion in U.S. taxes in 2012, U.S. Senator Carl Levin said. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Ever since I wrote a profile of Tim Cook in Fortune in 2008—the first article that explained to the world who Cook was and why he could become CEO of Apple (AAPL) one day—I’ve been asked from to time why I never mentioned that he was gay. The questions typically had an angry or accusatory tone to them, like I was participating in some conspiracy or cover-up.

Now that Cook himself has addressed the issue, I thought I would too. First of all, I didn’t know he was gay. I never asked, and he never said. The reason I never asked is that, at least professionally speaking, I wasn’t interested. I never saw one shred of evidence that Cook’s sexual preference had any impact on his job as chief operating officer and then chief executive of Apple.

Personally, I find all sorts of things interesting about people. I’m interested—and I assume readers are too—about where executives live, where they’re from, what they studied, what their hobbies are, who they’re married to and so on. I covered a fair amount of that in my profile, calling Cook “intensely private” and a “fitness nut,” an expression he too used in his essay Thursday. The closest I came to addressing Cook’s personal life and potential sexual orientation was in the following passage and a comment from a classmate at Auburn:

While a select group can claim to understand Cook at work, almost nobody claims to know much about his life outside Apple. A lifelong bachelor, he lives in a rented house in Palo Alto, vacations in places like Yosemite and Zion national parks, and shows few visible signs of wealth despite having sold more than $100 million of Apple stock over the years. He’s known for being the first in and last out of the office and for his grinding international travel schedule, and when he isn’t working he tends to be in the gym, on a hiking trail, or riding his bike.

The classmate, a woman who clearly enjoyed being one of Auburn’s few female engineering students, told me: “Tim’s just not a real social person. He’s not antisocial, either. He just never seemed that interested in other people. I’m a hugger and a kisser, but I’d never feel comfortable giving Tim a hug or a kiss.”

These insights into Cook’s personality seemed relevant at the time as a means to informing readers about what kind of businessman Cook was. I’d heard the rumors that he was gay, of course. I just didn’t particularly care. If you’re going to do business with the guy, his manner is of great interest. How he behaves in private just isn’t.

I do recall, however, having a passionate conversation six years ago with a friend and source, the CEO of a startup company who is in Apple’s orbit. The executive, who is gay and a couple of decades younger than Cook, told me how helpful it would be to other young men and women, especially in still-homophobic places like Alabama, if Cook would come out. In San Francisco or New York, he told me, being gay is so accepted that there’s not much to talk about. As far as these things go, such cities and communities are easy places to be who you want to be. But it’s not so everywhere, and Cook could have an impact in those parts of the world.

This week I began to wonder when Cook would abandon his privacy. Earlier in the year he had marched with other Apple employees in San Francisco’s gay pride parade. This week he chastised his native state for not doing more to make gays and others feel welcome. With his public statement Thursday he closed the loop and specifically made the point about how his gesture could help others.

This will very likely be an “Anderson Cooper moment” for Cook. Everyone who cared that he was gay already knew. I suspect there won’t be much discussion about it once the news cycle passes. Cook, famously demanding with employees and a tough negotiator with suppliers, likely won’t be any less demanding just because he has shared with the public a previously private part of his life. And that’s as it should be.