This article is not about technology. It is about humanity. I struggled to write it, and considered not posting it at all. It is deeply personal. But I feel it must be said.
Tim Cook publicly came out as gay last week. His sexuality was pretty much an open secret and it is doubtful that too many people, at least those paying attention, were shocked by the news. The only real surprise was that they very private man spoke so openly.
The reaction across the tech press has been positive pretty much across the board. But I was curious what the reaction from the larger tech community was going to be. After all, the comment sections on tech news blogs have a bit of a reputation for flamewars, and with the Gamergate controversy fresh in everyone’s minds, I decided to dive into the comments on the article posted to The Verge.
Before I begin it is important to state that I am in no way criticizing The Verge or their coverage of this story. Far from it actually. Not only was the initial coverage excellent, but they went on to post an even more amazing opinion piece on Cook’s coming out and why it is such a good thing for everyone. They have also done a laudable job of keeping the comments as clean and civil as possible. I think their coverage has been spectacular.
But The Verge has a lot of readers, and a very vocal subset of those who comment on the site, often in very aggressive ways. This is why I chose their article, though other tech blogs with comments enabled are seeing similar thoughts.
A lot of the comments, indeed the very first one on the story, have had a general theme of “whatever”. In a sense this is almost heartening to hear. For a lot of people, being gay is a non issue. And I appreciate that. But the fact of the matter is that this is not true of everyone. Worldwide one can still argue that a majority of humanity is still anti-gay, many part violently so. You can still be sentenced to death in ten countries. Then consider the number of places where being gay is a crime. These are not third world countries either. Russia has all but outlawed gay people, and they are a first world European power.
And it’s not just places where the laws are against you. There is still a real danger for gay people in modern, enlightened, liberal metropolises such as New York and Philadelphia. Yes, these places by and large are pro-gay, but that is little comfort to a person who is having their skull bashed by anonymous attackers.
Then consider the fact that you can still be fired in 29 states for being gay…legally. Yes, it is true that it is a notably better word for gay people then at any point in the past, but it is no more true that we live in a “post-gay” world than that we live in a “post-race” or “post-sexism” world. Look no further than Ferguson or Gamergate to see how not true this is.
One misconception that I think is common among straight people is that coming out is a process you do once in your life. While true that there is that one big moment where you admit to yourself and the people closest to you, it really never ends from there. Every time you meet a new person, you come out all over again. It is a lifelong process.
This is because relationships are not private. Another common refrain related to Cook’s story and many others is “we don’t need to know about it”. Or “keep it to yourself”. This would be an outrageously unfair burden to live with, and its ultimate goal is to turn back time to the 1950s, when gay people virtually did not exist. If you are heterosexual, think about how often during the day you are open about your sexual orientation. Do you introduce people to your significant other? Do you have children? Do you have photos of your wedding in public? Do you have a relationship status on Facebook? You “come out” as straight dozens of times every day. But you don’t realize it because there is absolutely no one telling you to “keep it to yourself”.
I have been going on some job interviews lately. No one is stupid enough to directly ask about your sexual orientation, but the subject can come up nevertheless. Small talk happens, family comes up. What do I say? Yes, I live in a liberal city in a liberal state where it would be illegal to fire me for being gay. But what if I never get hired in the first place? How do I know that it won’t influence your decision? And how could I ever prove that it happened? I have been out since I was a teenager, but I still come out all the time. And so does every other gay person you know.
Asking gay people to stay quiet is asking them to thread a needle they should not have to thread. Imagine if Tim Cook didn’t come out. Some people would assume that he was straight, and that all people who don’t come out are straight. Therefor if no one comes out, there are no gay people in positions of high esteem. Some people would assume he was ashamed, or that he should be ashamed. I still hear with frightening regularity, people say that they don’t mind gay people as long as they aren’t “that kind” of gay person. Women and minorities have the same insane expectations. They need to be the “good kind”. Women are expected to be attractive, but not slutty, but not prudish. We hold up the petty crime of a black man as proof that his shooting was justified, while never dreaming of applying the same burden of proof to a white person. We push people into poverty, then expect them to pull themselves out on their own in a culture that would rather they just disappear.
The tech world is a bit of a monoculture at times. It is very white, very male, and very straight, and mostly affluent. Yes, it is also young and liberal, but we have seen time and again that people really struggle to see past themselves. And that is everyone, myself included. We are all products of our own experiences. I do not know what it is like to be catcalled endlessly walking down the street because it doesn’t happen. I can have an opinion, but my opinion has the built in flaw of lacking any real experience from my own life. This is what has sometimes have the tech world uninviting to non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-affluent people. You cannot know what it is like to be someone else, you can only respect the differences, and try to understand them as best as your experience will allow.
And this is why Tim Cook coming out is important. It is part of who he is, it shapes who he is. It may not shape his ability to run a business, but it proves that a gay man can be in a position of such high esteem. Young people who may have avoided the technology industry because it may, to them, seem uninviting, now have a personal hero to look up to. We seek out people like us, there is no denying it. There is an embarrassing lack of diversity among CEOs. Tim Cook is still a white man, and we need more women and people of color in these positions of authority in the business world. His coming out is merely one step, even if an important one.
I am very lucky. Gay people of color, gay women, and gay people living in conservative areas of the world have it infinitely harder than a white gay man in New York City. The few instances of homophobia that I have directly experienced have mostly been nuisances, not life threatening encounters. My family loves me, my friends love me. I am legally married. Life for me is vastly different that if I had been born just a decade or so earlier. I am lucky. Tim Cook is lucky. Where we really need to end up is a world where luck does not factor in. It’s further than many people realize.
Tim Cook will be on stage again in the future, announcing new products from Apple. That fact that he is gay won’t change that. The products will be judged on their own merit, and so will he. We have not seen any mass movements to boycott Apple because of Cook’s openness. Years ago this would probably have happened, but I think even the most stridently anti-gay realize the futility in even attempting this, not to mention the lack of good alternatives given Microsoft and Google’s equally pro-gay attitudes.
I went into the comments expecting the worst. What I got a was a mixed bag. Some bad, yes, but also a whole lot of good, with a whole lot of misunderstanding and misplaced intentions. In a way that itself is positive. Like Tim, I am a proud gay man. And I am proud that he so eloquently expressed the same. And I am proud that this has been made possible in my lifetime. We can all be proud when everyone on earth can feel the same. A lofty goal to be sure, but we should expect nothing less.