Here's A Shocking Reminder Of One Reason Why Tim Cook Is The Only Openly Gay Fortune 500 CEO

Tim Cook in shadesREUTERS/Rick WilkingApple CEO Tim Cook

After Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly acknowledged his sexuality for the first time on Thursday, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg,Vitaly Milonov,had this to say:

“What could he (Cook) bring us? The Ebola virus, AIDS, gonorrhea? They all have unseemly ties over there … Ban him for life.”

Obviously, one Russian official’s insensitive comment does not represent the whole country’s view. But it’s worth noting that this type of homophobic attitude outside of the US is what causes a lot of major corporate CEOs to hesitate going public with their sexuality.

In fact, with Thursday’s announcement, Cook has become the only CEO at any Fortune 500 company to publicly say he’s gay. As baffling as it is, prior to Thursday, there were absolutely zero publicly gay CEOs at any Fortune 500 company.

And it’s not because these high-profile, major public companies don’t have any gay CEOs. According to New York Times columnist James Stewart, there are gay chief executives today, but it’s just that none of them are willing to acknowledge it in public.

There may be many reasons for this — and this is a complex, private issue that is more of a personal decision — but Stewart points out “conforming to social norms” might be the biggest reason for these big corporations remaining “the last frontiers for gay civil rights.”

Telling the story of John Browne, the former CEO of British oil company BP who resigned after being outed as gay, Stewart says:

“He (Browne) worried that any disclosure would damage his ability to negotiate with openly homophobic business and political leaders, including Vladimir Putin of Russia.”

A lot of these Fortune 500 companies are global in nature and have businesses spread all around the world. Some of their largest clients may be in countries that have more conservative views on homosexuality, and having a publicly gay CEO won’t necessarily help any of their sales.

In fact, that’s the same idea billionaire investor Peter Thiel — also publicly gay — echoed during an interview with Business Insider.

“A lot of these businesses are global in reach, and when you have customers all over the world, it becomes a question of ‘Will they hold that (being gay) against you?'” he said. “It’s not really a question of how tolerant people are in California.”

But if anything, Cook’s decision to reveal his sexuality could lead to more public company CEOs announcing they’re gay. And that might be exactly what Cook intended to achieve through his essay, as he wrote:

“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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