Tim Cook’s iGay: Will his rollout have global resonance?

    Until yesterday, 0 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs were openly gay. Tim Cook’s coming out – a metaphor for a more tolerant America, a challenge to homophobic cultures abroad – has upped that share all the way to 0.2.

    His declaration is a big deal. Apple is the world’s top tech firm, and it has already changed the way people live, work, and communicate – as I can attest right now, writing and posting this piece on a MacBook Air at 30,000 feet. And now, by saying “I’m proud to be gay,” Cook is stating squarely that the Apple brand stands for tolerance and equality, fusing the personal and political.

    His willingness to fully out himself in a major business magazine – his sexual orientation had long been an open secret – is testament to how far we’ve come in this country. Until the present day, with gay marriage legal even in states like Utah and Idaho, it was unthinkable that a global corporate leader would utter this kind of sentence: “I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me” – a sentence that can be read as a rebuke to the bigots who think they have God on their side.

    We can also gauge how far we’ve come by noting how benign the backlash has been.

    There were no  jeremiads yesterday from the likes of Mike Huckabee or the top-tier religious right leaders. Senate performance artist Ted Cruz tepidly said on TV that Cook’s gayness was “a personal decision, and that is his life” – clinging to the old saw (disproven decades ago in the shrink literature) that it’s just a lifestyle choice – before talking in the abstract about marriage and the Constitution. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a reliable homophobe, did huff on Twitter, “Apple CEO comes out as gay, lionized by the low-information media,” but that’s mild for him.

    Granted, it’s still legal in 29 states to fire gays in the workplace, and a federal bill to ban that practice nationwide – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act – has been stuck in Congress since the ’90s. Cook mentioned ENDA yesterday, pointing out that Apple has “taken a strong stand in support of a workplace equality bill,” and not even this corporation has the power to dispel lingering bigotry. Still, we’re only 18 years removed from a presidential campaign where Bob Dole felt compelled to return a donation that came from a gay group, and Bill Clinton boasted in radio ads on conservative southern stations that he was a defender of straights-only marriage.

    So yay for America. But we’ll see what happens abroad.

    Apple is reportedly negotiating to sell its devices in Iran, if or when the US. relaxes its sanctions. But it’s illegal to be gay in Iran; some gays get hanged for being who they are. Cook, by dint of his declaration yesterday, is essentially challenging that country to park its morals in favor of expanding its commerce. And he’s essentially challenging Russia to sustain its business ties – 1.6 million iPhones were sold there last year – by viewing Cook’s orientation as irrelevant. (Even though a St. Petersburg city councilor said of Cook yesterday, “What could he brings us? The Ebola virus, AIDS, gonorrhea?…Ban him for life.”)

    Obviously, Cook, like gays everywhere, doesn’t want to be judged on that alone; as he wrote, he’s also “an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things.”But for now his coming out has great symbolic weight; when it becomes clear that Apple’s place in the cosmos is undiminished, he will have made his point.

    And Ted Cruz said yesterday, “I love my iPhone.” There you have it.

     

     

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

     

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