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Why We Need a Gay Titan—Of Industry

By Jerry Portwood

John Browne speaks softly, but he is deliberate. When asked a meandering question, he grins, folds his hands, and chooses his words carefully and responds with ease. "I think it’s a great pity if someone, on the basis of how he or she is fundamentally made, they wish to step out of competition," he explains in relation to people who don't pursue a dream based on fear of discrimination. "I'm an aspirational person and I believe that people should aspire to greatness—and they should help people from different backgrounds, from different sexualities—to go for it."

It's the sort of studied grace that must have served him well when he was the CEO of BP from 1995 to 2007, having to navigate the queries about his personal life and the persistent nagging of coworkers' matchmaking wives. Browne's met with world leaders—yes, even Putin—to discuss oil, the economy, and the balance of power to forge business partnerships. And he did it all while keeping his sexuality secret. That is until it exploded in the British tabloids and he decided to resign from his position in apparent disgrace in 2007.

In his new book out this summer, The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business, he reveals embarrassing details about that episode with candor, as well as pulling us into other difficult decisions that help illustrate the struggles that gay men and women continue to face in corporate environments. His personal stories are woven together with the many anecdotes and narratives he's collected from men and women in coastal urban meccas, as well as places like Cleveland, Detroit, or Dallas—the cities where the company places you for ultimate corporate gain regardless of personal hardship.

I met Browne in a place where powerful people feel at home, the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Midtown Manhattan. He was staying there with his younger partner (who he calls his best editor), last month to discuss the need for openly gay business leaders, how his life has changed over the past couple of decades, and what he hopes the book will mean to people toiling, many of them still closeted, in multinationals around the globe.

Unlike the brash Bloombergs and crass Murdochs who bully their way through meetings, exhausted by too much probing into motivations and mistakes, Browne seems contemplative and at peace, like someone better suited to a university classroom rather than a global oil giant's boardroom. Or maybe that's just the impression his proper British accent and warm, twinkling smile radiates as he slowly sips his mint tea.

It's certainly a big deal that he's published a book about the complicated lives that gay men and women continue to face in business. As he states in the book, it's estimated that 41 percent of LGBT employees in the U.S. remain in the closet at work, as do 34 percent of their counterparts in the U.K. "It is the beginnings of a movement, a very particular, specialized movement with LGBT activity in the corporate sector," he tells me, referring to those industrials resource companies, pharmaceutical companies, "the people who make things and do things on a very broad basis."

He's already being asked to consult with business leaders to see how they can change, which is commendable, but it's difficult not to feel it would have been an even bigger deal if he'd manage to do it 10 years ago rather than publishing the book when the political climate had become more welcoming, after there was a "scandal." However, that shouldn't be deployed as a reason to detract from the great work he's put into creating this essential book that should be used in business schools and handed out to human resources personnel everywhere—no matter the industry. According to Browne, he invested nearly a year with of a team of researchers—people to conduct interviews as well statisticians. "I get very nervous when I look at surveys because I like to know that the questions are and how they actually did them," Browne, who was trained as a scientist, explains. "We looked through all the work before we actually used it, selectively picked the things we thought were more sound and less sound."

One reason it remained so difficult to pursue and publish is that, much like professional sports, the corporate world—which Browne is careful to pinpoint separately from the financial sector—continues to have a macho, "locker room" environment that makes it difficult for some people to prosper.

"Many boardrooms compose themselves with people that they're familiar with," Browne says. "They have a logic to build, so they generally want a team that they know. Women have made strides in this area, but not huge. I think, when groups of men get together, they bond by excluding other people. It's the easiest way to put together a team. Therefore, by definition, you look inward and everybody else is the enemy."

Spending decades in remote Alaska oil towns and other geological fringe zones, Browne understands what it felt like to be an outsider, but he didn't let it stop him from succeeding. He's aware that he's now a bit impervious to this bullying treatment—the fact that most everyone around him knows that he's gay, means that they're careful about what they say or do around him, but he's aware that this sort of corporate bullying continues in many sectors. Sometimes it's just the fact that people speak in the presumptive language of straight people—which makes others feel excluded and awkward.

For example, Browne posits the tough an office chit-chat scenario can become for a gay man. If asked about a bonus, the eventual question is "What does your wife think?" Rather than a natural, "I'm sure my husband will like it," he may feel the need to lie. As Browne explains, "that’s difficult for people to handle because they think that the automatic response is for the desk with the pictures of the wife and kids. If there's a wedding ring. it means you are married to a person of the opposite sex and you talk about the weekends with your family. But gay people often have to go through the hoops to somehow avoid that circumstance and the question. That takes a lot of energy away from the productive nature of people."

These seemingly slight omissions can eventually pile up and even have larger, lasting consequences. One anecdote that sticks out is Browne relaying his time as a trustee at the British Museum. It was 1999, and the group was deciding whether to acquire the Warren Cup. The ancient silver goblet depicts male lovers performing a sex act and Brown, despite thinking the object was precious and should be a part of the museum's collection, wouldn't express his support out of fear relating, "I thought that praising the work would be tantamount to coming out of the closet." It might seem minor, but he uses the example to show how the culture had moved beyond its earlier issues with homosexuality, but he was still trapped. Surprisingly, many men and women still feel that way despite the strides in human resources sensitivity training and non-discrimination policies at corporations.

Browne says he was perplexed by the level of anonymity upon which some of the interview subjects insisted, going to great lengths to conceal their identity for fear that it would somehow hurt chances at a promotion. It's what makes him understand why there remain no openly gay CEOs in the 700 biggest companies in America. "I think companies, corporations suffer hugely," he says. "I think if you are a member of a minority, you do tend to compensate and therefore probably work harder and you strive harder. So to avoid promoting people who are gay would be wrong and damaging for a business. When asked about the rumors surrounding Apple CEO Tim Cook being gay and what it would mean if he came out, he deftly parries.

"I don’t know whether Mr. Cook is gay or not," Browne begins coyly. "But I take it for what it is; there are plenty of rumors. And I think a CEO coming out, would I believe it would do very important things for that company that he runs. Of course it would send a big signal of authenticity and bonding with all employees because you can then share your whole self with that and that’s really, very important. And I think it might inspire people to come out as well, which would be no bad thing."

This causes Browne to reflect on his own career and what drove him to write The Glass Closet. "My only list of regrets—because I believe it is the future that counts—was that I left BP without actually being out, and I couldn’t be a whole person, couldn’t share myself with all of the employees," Browne says. "I think that’s a sadness that I have. A warm hurt, because to me at least, that would’ve been so much better...But I'm confident about progress."

The Glass Closet is available from HarperCollins now.

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