When I was a teenager, I didn’t think I knew any gay people. Fast- forward a quarter century and I know in hindsight just how naive I was: I had, of course, met plenty. But coming out in high school in the early 1990s was a rare thing indeed.
It’s still rare, unfortunately. I’d like to say the public announcement by Apple CEO Tim Cook that he’s gay wasn’t courageous and it wasn’t worthy of being on the cover of Canadian HR Reporter. I wish Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion (CIDI), didn’t have to call it a “trailblazing action.”
But what else can you say when Cook is the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company? How did it take until nearly 2015 for that to happen?
The answer is unfortunate: Being gay still has a mighty strong stigma attached to it, even in North America. In other parts of the world, it’s far worse. The day after Cook revealed he was gay, a memorial to Apple founder Steve Jobs was dismantled in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The two-metre tall monument, in the shape of an iPhone, was taken down by ZEFS, a group of Russian companies that built it.
“In Russia, gay propaganda and other sexual perversions among minors are prohibited by law,” read a statement provided to Reuters. ZEFS also pointed out that the memorial had been “in an area of direct access for young students and scholars.”
That’s a corporate memo to a news agency, by the way.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has enacted strong anti-gay legislation — and some lawmakers are even calling for Cook to be barred from ever entering the nation.
Hop over to Africa and the LGBT community is cowering in fear in Ebola-torn Liberia. Leroy Ponpon, a gay activist, said people have been harassed, physically attacked and had their property vandalized after religious leaders said Ebola is a punishment from God for homosexuality.
“They’re even asking for the death penalty,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We’re living in fear.”
In Nigeria, a bill signed earlier this year criminalized same-sex relationships — being caught in one can lead to up to 14 years in jail. It also bans gay marriage and outlaws membership in gay rights groups.
So, yes, in a world where this happens, we can’t really call Cook’s decision anything but courageous and trailblazing. Thankfully, we can add him to a growing list of high-profile people who have decided to come out. Even male athletes in professional sports are starting to, warily, step out.
Michael Sam, who played college football at Missouri, came out and was drafted in the seventh round of this year’s NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He didn’t make the team but most experts say it was his talent — not his sexuality — that led to him being cut. He was later signed to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad for a short period of time.
NBA player Jason Collins became the first player in one of North America’s four professional sports leagues to come out, something he did after the 2012-13 season. After the announcement — which he made by writing the cover story for Sports Illustrated — he continued to play, signing with the Brooklyn Nets.
Despite the headlines from Liberia and Nigeria, there is a ray of hope for progress in Africa. In Botswana, a judge overturned a government ban on a gay rights lobbying group on Nov. 14.
On Russia’s border, Latvia’s foreign minister tweeted “I proudly announce I am gay… Good luck all of you.” Edgars Rinkevics also said he would campaign for legal status for same-sex relationships in his largely conservative Baltic nation, according to Reuters. And neighbouring Estonia adopted a Cohabitation Act that recognizes civil unions, regardless of gender.
On the homefront, Ontario just elected its first openly gay premier, Kathleen Wynne. There were a lot of contentious points during the campaign, but none of them centred on her sexuality.
So, there is hope. Perhaps one day, we won’t have to applaud the Tim Cooks of the world for their courage. That day isn’t here yet — but it’s coming. And those in opposition are going to be on the wrong side of history.
© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.