Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. Oct. 27, 2014.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Apple’s CEO is now openly gay. Is that progress?

Updated

Apple CEO Tim Cook made history last week, becoming the first Fortune 500 CEO to break through the steel ceiling of heterosexual privilege in the business world when he disclosed in Businessweek that he is “proud to be gay.” Despite Cook’s insistence that he has long been open with many people about his sexual orientation, his decision to invite the public into an otherwise private area of his life rightly deserves praise as some commentators have noted. However, the same factors which make Cook’s “coming-out” appear exceptional and noteworthy are the very features, privileges actually, which are absented in the lives of so many LGBT people. For some, it literally pays to be gay. But for so many others, coming out costs.

Cook is a multi-millionaire. He was number 19 on Forbes’ 2013 The World’s Most Powerful People list, placing him among 71 others “who rule the world.” According to Forbes, Cook was paid $4.2 million in 2012.

Melissa Harris-Perry, 11/2/14, 11:30 AM ET

Tim Cook only openly gay Fortune 500 CEO

Tim Cook’s recent announcement gives him the distinction of being the first and only openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Dorie Clark, Christina Greer and Darnell Moore discuss Cook’s decision to come out in light of his privileged position.
While there exists a faulty assumption that gays and lesbians in the U.S. are prospering, recent research indicates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Americans actually remained more likely to be poor than heterosexual people. In fact, the poverty rates of African American same-sex couples are twice as much as different-sex couples. Cook’s economic and social capitals are features that made his coming out possible and less risky than it might have been had he not had wealth as a safety net.

Cook is a cisgender white male adult in a society that privileges whiteness and maleness, and one that is largely antagonistic to transgender people. That is not to say Cook does not experience struggles. He even wrote,

“Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day.”

Yet, the complex and interconnected struggles of queer women, people of color, and transgender individuals are often obscured when we celebrate seeming moments of singular gay uplift. Our struggles are not the same.

An estimated 40% of homeless youth served by agencies in the United States identify as LGBT. According to the  Anti-Violence Project, people of color, transgender people, and gender non-conforming people experienced higher rates of homicide in 2012. The report also found that 53.8% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender women. Moreover, lesbian and bisexual women are impacted by discrimination in educational and workplace settings because of their sexual orientations and gender. In fact, twenty-four percent of lesbians and bisexual women are poor, compared with only 19% of heterosexual women, as reported by the Williams Institute.

Thus, Cook exists among a contingent within the LGBT community made up of white cisgender men who are more likely to be economically stable, employed, and alive.

Cook’s announcement was important given that up until now there was not one openly gay Fortune 500 CEO, but we should be less quick in our rush to name this moment progress. As marketing strategist Dorie Clark noted. “Only 1% of the nation’s Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Only 4% are women.” And now one is openly gay.

As long as gayness is an identity celebrated or talked about when certain LGBT people, like the wealthy and famous, come out or when LGBT people are violently killed in the US, we will continue to witness the various ways some within the LGBT spectrum are placed squarely in the center of power as some others are pushed to the edges of the margins.

Cook is no activist. But since the world is watching and applauding, these issues should now be his concern. 

Gay Rights, Racism and Technology

Apple's CEO is now openly gay. Is that progress?

Updated