The glass closet

BP’s ex-CEO warns of the high cost of se­crecy

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - John Browne. WH Allen $ 34

SOME years ago The Deal pub­lished a pro­file of a chief ex­ec­u­tive who hap­pened to be gay. With his agree­ment it was de­cided to men­tion this at the bot­tom of the ar­ti­cle. He had never made a se­cret of his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and has been pro­moted to an in­ter­na­tional job.

Aus­tralia, on the face of it, ap­pears to be much more re­laxed about is­sues of the sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion of staff and ex­ec­u­tives in the workplace – but on read­ing John Browne’s painfully hon­est book I am not so sure. Browne, the long-time chief ex­ec­u­tive of oil gi­ant BP, was forced to re­sign in 2007 af­ter his for­mer gay lover sold his story to the Daily Mail. The Glass Closet, Why Com­ing Out is Good for Busi­ness dis­cusses the high hu­man cost to gays in the work­force and at se­nior lev­els in busi­ness, and who feel the need to cover up their sex­u­al­ity. He en­cour­ages oth­ers to be more open. He says: “I wish I had been brave enough to come out ear­lier dur­ing my ten­ure as chief ex­ec­u­tive at BP. I re­gret it to this day. I know that if I had done so, I would have made more of an im­pact for other gay men and women. It is my hope that the sto­ries in this book will give some of them the courage to make an im­pact of their own.”

One of Browne’s is­sues was the fact that his con­cern about be­ing found out as a ho­mo­sex­ual, made him wary of go­ing to gay bars and led him to seek friend­ship from an on­line dat­ing ser­vice. This led to a re­la­tion­ship with a 23-year-old male es­cort which turned sour. When Browne stopped pro­vid­ing him with fi­nan­cial sup­port, the es­cort even­tu­ally went to the me­dia with his story. Browne tried to sup­press the story with court ac­tion which ex­ac­er­bated the sit­u­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly since he ini­tially de­clared to the court that he met his lover jog­ging.

It is easy to say that Browne should have been more open about his sex­u­al­ity. But, as he moved up the ex­ec­u­tive ranks of the very male dom­i­nated oil in­dus­try and in the top lev­els of Bri­tish busi­ness, he be­came in­creas­ingly con­cerned that “com­ing out” would be a prob­lem.

He also men­tions the very prac­ti­cal is­sue of him as the CEO of BP vis­it­ing high-level con­tacts in the Mid­dle East where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a crime or in Rus­sia where Vladimir Putin has also tar­geted gays. Or in the US, in cer­tain states, where far right groups can mo­bilise against those not seen to pro­mote “fam­ily val­ues”. When news of his res­ig­na­tion in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances broke, Lee Scott, the then chief ex­ec­u­tive of US re­tailer Wal-Mart, rang him to with­draw an in­for­mal of­fer to join the board. Wal-Mart has its head­quar­ters in Arkansas and Scott felt Browne be­com­ing a di­rec­tor would be un­ten­able, given the ac­tive re­li­gious right in the south­ern state.

Browne’s book was writ­ten with the help of a sym­pa­thetic jour­nal­ist who has helped him do a sub­stan­tial amount of re­search on the is­sue. But it is at most po­tent when you hear Browne’s own voice come through the words, with the sad and con­stant mes­sage about the drain­ing hu­man cost of hav­ing to con­stantly cover up one’s sex­u­al­ity.

As he ac­knowl­edges, life has be­come a lot eas­ier for the LGBT com­mu­nity (les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der com­mu­nity), at least in Western coun­tries, than when he was ris­ing up the ranks. He in­ter­views many in busi­ness who are still afraid to be open about their sex­u­al­ity. And he raises the is­sue of whether openly gay people do have dif­fi­cul­ties ris­ing up the ranks. If women find prob­lems deal­ing with the “boys club” at the top of the ex­ec­u­tive pyramid, where se­nior ex­ec­u­tives pro­mote people they are com­fort­able with, it must be chal­leng­ing for gays who don’t have the same “wife at home with the kids” fam­ily sit­u­a­tion.

Browne’s book is not a com­fort­able read but that’s be­cause some of the is­sues he raises have been swept un­der the car­pet for too long.

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