Tim Cook is gay. Who cares? Tons of people are gay. Tons of states recognize gay marriage. It turns out I care. And so should everyone else who believes in equality, toleration and a better world.
There have been rumors for many years surrounding Cook’s sexuality. He has been open about it with people at Apple, and Out included him on a list of powerful gay celebrities. Yet, life moved on. It was unimportant to consumers, the media and investors. Two weeks ago, he chose to end this long period of radio silence. In a note published in Bloomberg Businessweek, he formally came out.
What does this mean in the 21st century for an influential CEO? Is it important?
Before I delve further, it is important to acknowledge the significant milestones of Tim Cook’s announcement: he is the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to come out as openly gay. Moreover, Apple is not any Fortune 500 company, it is widely influential and its products are used or interacted with by the majority of the American public on a daily basis.
But what makes his announcement so remarkable is his different approach to his sexuality. No only is a he proudly gay, he views it as “one of the greatest gifts God has given [him].” This is a massively controversial statement. But, it is one that lends incredible power to his message. For Cook, being gay isn’t the same as being straight, which is often a line of defense or a way to rationalize it. For Cook, it is wildly different in the best way possible. Being gay has shaped his entire worldview, and given him a “richer life.” In his own words, he has become more aware of the plight of minorities, and the discrimination that all marginalized people feel across the United States and the world.
At the helm of Apple, Cook has certainly led using this philosophy. When I first read his memo, I thought of Foxconn, the company that manufactures the majority of Apple products in China. Foxconn’s labor practices and conditions are controversial, and have been subject to much public scrutiny. In 2010, there were multiple worker suicides due to conditions in the factory. Xu Lizhi, a worker since 2010 who committed suicide this September, wrote incredibly powerful poetry describing the conditions. At the same time, Apple has been vocal about anti-discrimination legislation and workers rights in the US. How, I thought, could Tim Cook be so vocal in the United States about rights while utilizing a company in China with seemingly deplorable conditions?
It turns out I was partially wrong. Since 2010, Apple has repeatedly worked with the Fair Labor Association to assess and improve conditions at Foxconnn and Pegatron, two major manufacturing corporations in China. Cook himself has visited the plant, and there are a string of requests and reports between the FLA and Apple, seeking to improve working conditions.
Foxconn is not a perfect corporation, and according to the FLA report, they still have a ways to go. If Xu Lizhi’s suicide is any account, there are serious problems still to be solved. But, Apple is actively working to improve the conditions. That kind of corporate social responsibility is rare in the 21st century, especially for such a large corporation. Apple certainly isn’t perfect, but they are trying.
So why is his announcement so remarkable?
Tim Cook’s Apple is a better Apple. But Tim Cook is more than a CEO. He is a mover and shaker in society, one with incredible clout and the ability to affect positive change. He doesn’t describe himself as an activist, which lends power to his argument. People who stand up for equality should not need to be labeled as activists. Being gay has shaped how he views the world but “part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender.”
It is the latter statement that makes his announcement so remarkable. He simultaneously heralds the importance of it in his identity, while dismissing it as his sole defining characteristic. His announcement generated a lot of attention; he did not display unnecessary fanfare. He is who he is, and intends to continue to lead the company. The world needs more Tim Cooks, more people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, but then sit back down and get back to work making the world a better place.