John Browne’s career came crashing down in 2007 when, as the head of oil giant BP, he got caught in a lie. His untruthfulness had nothing to do with garden-variety corporate corruption. Instead, he was gay and had lied to prevent details of his personal life from hitting the papers.
Of course, the opposite happened. And, at 59, his brilliant four-decade career as the scientist, engineer and corporate titan who turned British Petroleum into Beyond Petroleum was over in an instant. Lucky for him, he already had a second job in the House of Lords. And as Lord Browne, he has staunchly defended the current attempt to legalize gay marriage in Britain.
Still, Lord Browne’s business career would not have ended so abruptly had he not felt the need to live a lie in the first place. “During my 41 years at the company, I fenced off a portion of my life because it was simply unacceptable to be gay in business, especially in the oil industry,” he wrote recently. “Many gay people see coming out as a threat to their career advancement, while many corporate leaders see openly gay staff as a risk to important client relationships.”
Just ask the folks at Exxon Mobil. The world’s biggest private-sector oil company still denies spousal benefits to gay employees in the United States, even in states where same-sex marriage is legal. Exxon argues that it doesn’t have to under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which says “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman.”
That could change any day now, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hand down a historic decision on the constitutionality of the 1996 legislation known as DOMA. Along with a ruling on the legality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, the two decisions promise to make this month’s worldwide Pride celebrations even louder than normal. Sadly, they need to be.
Most legal experts predict that the top U.S. court will strike down DOMA on the grounds that marriage is a matter for individual states to decide. But that same reasoning could lead the court to hold back from intervening in the California case.
Some people think it may not matter that much. They argue that attitudes toward homosexuality are progressing so fast that, even if the court takes a go-slow approach, marriage equality is soon inevitable everywhere. After all, just this spring, three more states voted to legalize same-sex marriage, bringing the total to 12, along with Washington, D.C.
These optimists have obviously never been to Texas. And for that matter, legal rights are not the same thing as social acceptance. Just go to Iowa.
Discrimination is a fact of life, even in Canada. Unless you work in fashion, entertainment or the media, coming out remains a career risk for most gay people. Those most likely to “reveal” their sexual orientation are the (rare) ones most likely to benefit from the publicity. That’s why a relatively unknown basketball player was the first active athlete in a major North American team sport to come out.
The intensity of the backlash against last month’s decision by the Boy Scouts of America to permit gay boys to join shows that homosexuality is still taboo in much of mainstream America. Hostile parents are pulling their kids out of the organization and the Southern Baptist Convention last week passed a resolution opposing the rule change. One church leader called it “ungodly.”
It’s tempting to dismiss such people as fossils, along with anti-gay-marriage protesters in France and the 130 British Conservative MPs who voted last month against same-sex marriage. Most young people, it seems, have no such hang-ups and see sexuality as a non-issue.
That is of little consolation to the gay teenager cowering in his room as he reads the slurs on Facebook. Or to gays in Russia, where the Duma has just passed a law banning the propagandizing among minors of “nontraditional” sexual relationships.
The law is hugely popular. This month, a Pew Research Center poll found that 74 per cent of Russians think homosexuality is unacceptable. Fully a third of Americans and 14 per cent of Canadians were shameless enough to tell Pew that they agree. In most Arab countries and Africa, the poll found condemnation of homosexuality running into the high nineties.
That’s why Pride, for all its in-your-face tediousness, has yet to outlive its purpose.