When I read that Apple CEO Tim Cook had come out as gay, I thought to myself that it was nice to see the head of one of the most profitable companies in the world publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation. When the Human Rights Campaign called it “courageous,” though, I had to stop and think.
“(C)ourageous”? Really? Just how much courage does it really require for one of the richest men in the world (Cook’s personal net worth is estimated at about 400 million), someone who runs one of the most profitable companies on the planet, to come out as gay? Who really runs a greater risk by choosing to come out and live openly, a multi-bazillionaire CEO or a lower or middle class retail or factory worker?
Certainly the publicity Cook’s coming out is garnering is a positive thing culturally, but how groundbreaking is it really for any rich white guy to come out as gay in 2014, much less a famous one?
The problem is that what doesn’t make the news is the rampant anti-LGBT discrimination that takes place in workplaces all over this country, and the generally unreported truth that this kind of discrimination is perfectly legal in 32 American states.
Tim Cook will never have to risk his livelihood by coming out, but thousands, perhaps millions, of lower and middle-income LGBT working families must continue to live in fear that being publicly revealed as LGBT to the wrong person could destroy the lives and careers they’ve built up.
Unlike Cook, these folks could find themselves unemployed or even homeless due to a stray rumor or accusation reaching an unsupportive boss or landlord. Perhaps even worse, these employees could find themselves being forced into undesired and unwanted work and personal situations knowing that if they refuse they can and will be legally fired for being LGBT, knowing that they won’t have the same kind of redress to the law as a straight or cisgender employee would.
When we focus on a celebrity outing like Tim Cook’s and call it “courageous,” we’re shifting our attention as a community away from where it should be, on ensuring that one doesn’t have to be a super-wealthy and powerful CEO in order to safely come out on the job as LGBT.
Right now, it’s really a crapshoot. Even in states where there are strong fully inclusive anti-discrimination laws, a lot depends on the company you work for and the people in charge. Yes, it’s easier than it used to be to find a job as an LGBT person in states with these protections, such as my home state of New Jersey, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a corresponding increase in access to raises and promotions. You have a better chance of being hired for an entry level position as an LGBT person in these states, but all too often you won’t be offered the same respect or opportunity for advancement on the job as straight and cisgender workers are. If you complain, or make the cardinal mistake of expecting to be treated like everyone else, a likely result could be your unemployment.
The coming out of a multimillionaire CEO is not a profile in courage. True courage is found in the trans woman who goes to work every day knowing that her life as she knows it could be destroyed at the whim of her boss or her landlord. It’s found in the lesbian couple who set a date to marry, knowing that they’re putting their home and their jobs at risk because it’s still legal to fire and evict them for being LGBT in their state.
It’s the kind of courage that only someone who has had to put it all on the line in order to be themselves can ever truly understand.