For anyone who'd been paying attention, Tim Cook's coming out seemed like a non-event. The Apple CEO's homosexuality had been an open secret in Silicon Valley. He topped OUT magazine's list of the 50 most powerful gay people in 2013, and was second this year behind Ellen DeGeneres.
Apparently billions of people never got the memo. And so when Mr. Cook made it official last week, declaring in a Bloomberg Businessweek essay that being gay was "among the greatest gifts" God had given him, it was the opposite of a non-event. The whole world noticed.
That Mr. Cook came out on the very day that Singapore's Court of Appeal upheld the country's ban on gay sex only underscored the widening global gay rights divide. As discrimination against gays has fallen in the West, it has sparked violent backlashes against them elsewhere. In parts of Africa and Asia, coming out can amount to making a death wish. It's no field day in Russia, either.
Even the Pope is finding it hard to spread the love. When the preliminary report of last month's synod on the family espoused "welcoming" gays and recognizing that their unions provided "precious support in the life of the partners," hardliner bishops revolted and those references were purged from the final version. "We're not collapsing in a heap," one traditionalist cardinal sniped.
Gay rights took another step forward last month when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals of lower court rulings that struck down six state bans on same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans now live in states – 32 at last count – where gays can legally wed. That's bad news for Canada's gay wedding industry, but good news for humanity.
Still, there remain pockets of hardened resistance, even in the West. For some, it's a matter of faith. The fundamental rights that allow them to freely express their religion apparently don't apply to gays seeking to freely express their love. Despite Francis's overtures toward gays, the church still officially considers same-sex relationships "intrinsically disordered."
Religion is not the only barrier to equality. Most straight men are still painfully awkward around this topic. In Canada, outward discrimination toward gays is taboo – though homophobia clearly endures – and yet, homosexuality remains the love that dare not speak its name in professional circles. It's why most gay people are still effectively closeted at work.
This is where Mr. Cook's coming out stands to make the greatest difference. In some industries – entertainment, fashion, media – being gay is no obstacle to climbing the corporate ladder. Even in tech companies, notorious for their frat-boy culture, it's probably still easier to be gay than female. But to come out at a mining, oil or construction company is usually to feel utterly alone.
"Covering" – the act of hiding aspects of one's sexual orientation – remains the norm for most gays at work. An openly gay executive may get passed over for a promotion if higher-ups fear his sexuality will put off clients, particularly foreign ones. While a generational shift is under way, most companies are still run by straight men who have no idea what it's like to be gay or have only stereotypical notions of what it means. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, it's still safer to stay in the closet.
That's why Mr. Cook's announcement is a big deal. Apple is not just any company – it's been the world's most admired corporation for seven years running, three of them with Mr. Cook at the helm. His coming out brings to a whopping tally of one the number of Fortune 1000 companies run by openly gay CEOs. Sure, that might be a boon to Apple's brand among a fan base that prides itself on being cool with diversity. But much of Apple's growth depends on Asia, where attitudes toward gays can be hostile.
So, Mr. Cook took a courageous step, placing what he called his "brick" on the "sunlit path toward justice." I prefer to think of it as a massive chip in the wall of injustice. But no matter. It's an event by any name.