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Live and let live, out or not

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: Opinions


Coming out can be a wonderful experience for people who are both empowered to do so and surrounded by loving and understanding people who wish them well. But, even so, it’s important to recognize that it’s equally valid not to come out, or to come out selectively or slowly, and that the decision is different for every individual.

Tim Cook was COO of Apple in April when Out Magazine put him at the top of their fifth annual Power 50 list, marking him as the most influential member of the LGBT community. When Steve Jobs resigned in August, he became Apple’s new CEO, and Jobs’ recent death has only cemented his position as leader of one of the world’s most powerful companies. Now he’s being heralded as the most powerful gay man in the world—despite the fact that Cook has never publicly come out as gay.

Apparently, it’s a similar situation to the one that has flummoxed fans of Anderson Cooper for years. While anonymous sources have supposedly confirmed what everyone suspects, he has no intention of confirming or denying the news himself.

But with great power comes great responsibility—or so gay rights advocacy groups say. The president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Justin Nelson, was quoted by the Washington Blade as saying, “What an enormous thing it would be to have an openly LGBT person leading … a Fortune 50 company. … I think this would send a very serious message that LGBT people should be at that table, they should be in those board rooms.”

So what does it mean that the person assumed to be the world’s most powerful gay man is not out of the closet? Is it empowering or a sign that social norms can still challenge a man at the helm of a company that has made a permanent mark on society with its inventions?

Some might speculate that he chooses not to come out in order to avoid having a negative effect on Apple’s image. If this is the case, what message does that send to ordinary LGBT people who are thinking of whether or not to take that same step?

The idea that Cook is unwilling to come out in order to preserve Apple’s image doesn’t seem as likely considering Apple is already considered one of the most gay-friendly brands. The man, described in a profile with Gawker as a “voracious” workaholic with a relatively withdrawn social demeanor, seems more likely to choose not to come out in his professional world because the matter is so personal.

But whatever the reason may be, to disclose his sexual orientation—gay, straight or otherwise—is ultimately a personal choice for Cook to make, however and whenever he chooses to do so. Gay rights advocacy groups may lament the opportunity for a potential role model to shine but, regardless of social and economic class, this does not change the fact that coming out is a milestone that is different for each person. Even if his coming out would have a positive effect on other people’s lives, if that choice were one he would regret, it wouldn’t be the right choice to make.

Coming out is not about everyone opening up about their personal lives to the general public. It’s not about knowing everybody’s secrets. It’s about having the freedom to be yourself and express yourself in any way you choose, to whomever you choose, the ones you love or the ones you hate or people you don’t even know.

It’s not a mandate, it’s not something to feel pressure over, it’s not even a suggestion. Ideally it can be an opportunity for growth and connection for everyone. But if that’s not for you, you can be proud of that too.