The glass closet
BP’s ex-CEO warns of the high cost of secrecy
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.