By Tanni Deb
When Karl Wenzel began working 14 years ago in account management for Leo Burnett, the Chicago-based advertising agency, he knew many of his creative colleagues in the company were gay. However, he hesitated to come out because he worried about how his clients would judge him if they knew his sexual orientation.
“There was a little bit concern just because I was expected to have maybe a different profile within the organization,” he remembers. “It was well into my career before I really felt comfortable being out with clients.” Wenzel, who credits Burnett’s welcoming atmosphere for his decision, is now the agency’s senior vice president and account director.
Wenzel was understandably thrilled last week when Apple’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook publicly disclosed that he also was gay.
“It’s great to see somebody at that level … making that kind of statement because it sends a message to everybody else that [sexual orientation] is not going to be a factor that stands in your way of advancing [in your career],” Wenzel said. “Rather it shows that the company understands that a workforce with diversity of backgrounds, experiences and ideas will help give them an advantage.”
Not everyone was pleased with Cook’s revelation. The day after Cook said he was gay, a Russian group of companies called ZEFS dismantled a memorial to Apple founder Steve Jobs outside of a college in Saint Petersburg. The giant iPhone monument was removed because it violated a law that prohibits “nontraditional sexual relations” with minors, the company said.
While it is relatively common for creative environments such as the arts or the entertainment industry to be gay-friendly, it is still a rarity for business executives and professional sports figures to be openly gay. For instance, Michael Sam may have paid the price for being the first openly gay NFL player when the Dallas Cowboys eliminated him from the team last month. Last April, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player after the Washington Wizards’ season ended. He became a free agent and was unsigned until February when he inked a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. He is not currently a member of an NBA team.
Cook is now the only gay chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. His decision to live openly makes him an influential and inspirational person in the gay community.
“[Cook is] one more positive role model for LGBT kids who are coming to terms with their identity … or asking themselves will coming out mean that they have no future,” said Bernard Cherkasov, the chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, an organization working to advance equality for the LGBT community. “[Youth will] now be able to look and say, ‘Wow, openly gay people make it really high in this world.’”
In an opinion piece in Bloomberg Businessweek last Thursday, Cook said he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to invite the public into his private life in order for him to do something important.
“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” he wrote. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”
Although Cook does not consider himself as an activist, he said he has a desire to help LGBT individuals who experience fear and abuse because of their sexual orientation.
“I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy,” he wrote.
Cook’s action hopefully will motivate companies to evaluate their policies because there are many corporations that lack employment protections, said Tracy Baim, the publisher of Windy City Times, an online newspaper reporting on the LGBT community.
“Now that there is a big fight for employment non-discrimination to be a federal protection, this will be a great [reason] in Congress for pushing for those protections,” she said.
There is no federal law that protects gay individuals from employment discrimination. Furthermore, 29 states lack a state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization working to gain LGBT equality.
Last November, the U.S. Senate approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. If the bill passes the House of Representatives, many in the LGBT community would not hide, Baim said.
When people in leadership positions are open about their sexual orientation, it indicates that the work environment is inclusive, Burnett’s Wenzel said.
“It helps people to feel more comfortable and [therefore, people won’t] feel like they have to withhold information or dodge questions about their personal lives,” he said. “They’ll feel more satisfied … in their work environment.”
Cook said that he will continue to advocate for equality.
“Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender,” he wrote. “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”