On 1 October 2014, I spoke about The Glass Closet at the Henley Literary Festival in Henley-on-Thames, an affluent town known primarily for its annual rowing regatta.
The discussion took place inside the Kenton Theatre, a Georgian building that opened in 1805. Over more than two centuries it had served as a school, a church and a playhouse. The surroundings were historic, but the ideas we discussed were definitely contemporary.
After the event, I signed books on the stage. A man and woman in their mid-fifties approached me with a special request. ‘Could you please make it out to our son?’ the woman asked. ‘We’d like him to come out.’
Polls consistently show that younger age groups are more tolerant and accepting of homosexuality than their parents and grandparents. These young people are growing up in a world in which having an openly gay teacher, doctor or relative is increasingly normal. But change is affecting all generations. In this instance, a young man is fortunate enough to have parents who see openness as an important part of his well-being, and who are there to encourage him on his journey.
In the year that has passed since The Glass Closet was published, I have been touched by numerous encounters such as the one in Henley. In London, a man in his thirties came up to me at a business event. ‘I read your book on a flight to and from Singapore,’ he said. ‘When I got home, I came out.’
On another occasion, a senior executive at a major bank came to see me with the news that he, too, had come out after reading the book. His colleagues were neither startled nor terribly surprised. Perhaps the greatest reaction came from the executive himself. He was now more relaxed with his colleagues and in his own skin.
I never thought of The Glass Closet as a road map to coming out, the process of which is unique to each individual. There are no formulas or certainties, but the stories found in this book and on glasscloset.org provide examples for others to follow. It has been a great joy to learn that they have helped to give some people the confidence to come out, and to live the true beauty of life.
Since the book’s publication I have spoken about it at least once a week at events across the world. From London to Singapore to San Francisco, LGBT people in all walks of life have confirmed my belief that nothing is more effective at dispelling fear than examples of people who have come out and thrived.
But on 29 October 2014, the day before I was scheduled to speak with employees at Google and Facebook in San Francisco, there was still not a single openly gay chief executive in the Fortune 500. When young LGBT businesspeople looked to the very top, they saw no one like themselves.
That changed the following morning. I woke up at 5 a.m. to a flurry of emails from colleagues around the world, each of them telling me that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, had come out in an essay published in Bloomberg Businessweek.
He had been out to close friends and colleagues for years, but he never felt the need to come out publicly. He wrote that he wanted to keep the focus on Apple’s products rather than his personal life, a fear that I had harbored during my time as chief executive of BP.
‘I’ve come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important,’ he wrote. ‘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.’
By the time I had finished breakfast, a second wave of emails had arrived from more than a dozen media outlets asking for comment.
My reaction to the news was immediate and straightforward. I was happy for Cook on a personal level. Since coming out, I have learned how much simpler life is when you bring your personal and professional lives together.
In a sense The Glass Closet marked a second coming out. It put a full stop on one chapter of my life and opened a new page. I can now talk freely and openly about how I was outed and, for the first time, in my own words.
This is an edited extract from the foreward to the paperback edition of The Glass Closet, which will be published on 11 June by Random House.Click here to order.