On October 30, Apple’s Tim Cook became the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO. His open letter to BusinessWeek expressed his appreciation for the “public figures who have bravely come out” and an acknowledgement of how fortunate he is to live in an environment attuned toward tolerance of different sexual orientations. It certainly is an admirable event, as many have pointed out, that one of the most powerful men in the world can now be looked up to by the LGBT community and others sympathetic to their cause. There is no contesting that we’ve come a long way.
Although gay rights may no longer be a “wedge issue” in American politics, and the victory of legalized gay marriage in America now seems inevitable, this event points to an unsettling contradiction in the discourse surrounding basic human rights at the heart of Western culture. In his essay Réflexions sur la guillotine that severely critiqued the institution of capital punishment, Albert Camus diagnosed a similar problem. He lamented that for a culture established on human rights and equality, our insistence on a criminal’s fundamental right to life appears functionally valuable only until it proves more convenient to a vengeful group of people or political elites for him to be dead.
Similarly, I am concerned about the presence of this threshold of “inconvenience” in Cook’s coming-out. Like Obama when he came out in support of gay marriage in 2012 only with the endorsement of his campaign advisors, Cook came out only after having first consulted with Apple’s board. Although Art Levinson, the chairman of Apple’s board of directors, has stressed that the board “stands behind Cook,” the situation has already been framed within a threshold of inconvenience. Thus, we can see that, at times, the ability to be open about one’s identity and the importance of gay rights — or rights in general — are “fundamental” only insofar as they are not too inconvenient for the interests of the organization. When it comes to social issues, corporations, by their nature, are concerned most with convenience and public image, relative to activists. Though he did fortunately obtain permission from his board, I suspect Cook could not have come out had he not obtained it.
On a related note, ex-CEO of BP John Browne, who resigned after his sexual orientation was revealed, recently published a memoir interspersed with social criticism entitled The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business. The memoir posits that “it’s better for you, your business and the economy when you bring your authentic self to work.” Though I am sure his memoir is poignantly written and valuable as a source for support for those in a similar situation, his arguments for equal treatment are not in the appropriate terms on which gay rights should be argued for.
The question of whether or not it is worthwhile to fight for gay rights is beginning to be framed in terms of material or economic consequences. But gay rights and human rights in general need be supported as principles in themselves — not as means to certain ends. If we had justified civil rights on Browne’s terms, we would say: “Although our skin is black and your skin is white, give us equal rights because it is better for the economy.” Borrowing from Slavoj Žižek, those in the fight ought not to dilute their vision with weaker arguments, for when “King marched on Washington D.C., he didn’t say ‘learn to live with us.’ He said, ‘We’re here to cash a check.’”
In his letter, Cook consistently insists on a sort of self-directed humility that seems to have escaped the aggrandized praise coming from his Silicon Valley compatriots. He is not an activist and he knows it. Cook concedes that he’s simply “benefited from the sacrifice of others” and that he does not consider himself an activist — and rightly so. However, other prominent corporate tech figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella of Microsoft have tweeted respectively: “Thank you Tim for showing what it means to be a real, courageous and authentic leader” and “Inspired by [Tim Cook]: Life’s most persistent & urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others’”.
With this in mind, I have another concern: that we may forget in the midst of this that Apple is still a corporation, and these sorts of events do not make Apple or Facebook or any other corporation a leader in social change. Cook’s coming out is worthy of admiration and recognition, but the public approval may lead to a misleadingly positive portrait of corporations and their relationship to our socioeconomic and political hopes. Though corporations may contribute to social movements — e.g. via making efforts to hire minorities or those who are LGBT — they remain first and foremost profit-seeking organizations. Corporations remain corporations regardless of whether or not they don a human face from time to time, especially in relation to developing countries.
If we again look at this event in terms of convenience, we can uncover the threshold of inconvenience by asking the question: what did Apple have to lose with Cook coming out? Not much: Sales are projected to continue as normal; even in China, where Cook’s coming out has been met with ridicule, sales are not expected to drop.
If we look at the countries that are in the most need for gay rights — such as the 79 countries in which it is illegal to be homosexual — I find it highly unlikely that a figure of prominence will come out of the closet in the near future. Cook’s coming out is primarily a reflection of progress, rather than an instigator of further progress; any perception that Cook is a leader in the struggle for gay rights in either America or abroad is confusing the flower for the seed.
For Cook to be able to come out with such confidence and support in America is a cultural achievement. So, let us continue to pay respect to the individual sacrifices, the legal efforts, the activism and resilience of LGBT organizations that have made this progress possible, rather than see it as a rise of “good capitalism” or of corporations with friendly faces marching us forward.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.