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3 Things That Got Better for LGBT Workers Since Tim Cook Joined Apple in 1998

Today, in an op-ed in BloombergBusinessweek, Apple CEO Tim Cook officially came out: "While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven't publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."

Today, in an op-ed in BloombergBusinessweek, Apple CEO Tim Cook officially came out: “While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Tim Cook 

(Photo Credit: Tim Cook Press Photo via Apple Inc.)

Prior to succeeding Steve Jobs as CEO in 2011, Cook held various executive positions at the company, including COO. He first joined the company in 1998, as Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations. Many of his colleagues at Apple, he says, knew he was gay, but it didn’t affect how he was treated.

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“Of course, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences,” writes Cook. “Not everyone is so lucky.”

Cook notes that a majority of states in the US have laws allowing companies to fire workers for no other reason than their sexual orientation. Children are still bullied at school, and partners denied the right to legally marry, inherit, or visit one another in the hospital. The world is still far from a perfect place, in the workplace or outside of it. Still, there are improvements. Society has made great strides in the past decade-plus.

Here’s what’s changed for the better since Tim Cook joined Apple in 1998:

1. The CEO of Apple can be an out, proud gay man.

In 1998, famous LGBT people were confined to the arts — and only some of them. You could be out and a musician or a visual artist, for example, but if you were an actor, and ever wanted to film a romantic comedy as anything other than a sidekick, you were forced to remain closeted.

There were no openly gay top executives. In fact, as recently as 2007, the CEO of BP resigned after being publicly outed. Tim Cook is the first Fortune 500 CEO to come out, and while only time will tell how stockholders and the public at large react in the long term, the very fact that a major corporate player would take the risk is significant.

So far, the reaction has been encouraging.

“Now that Cook has made the announcement and Apple’s stock has remained flat, it seems clear that shareholders don’t care,” writes Alyson Shontell at Business Insider.

2. Legal protections for LGBT workers are stronger than ever.

It’s still legal in 29 states for private companies to fire employees for their sexual orientation, but that’s changing.

In July, President Obama signed an executive order making it illegal for federal contractors to fire or harass employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The order immediately affected 24,000 companies employing 28 million workers.

Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed two lawsuits on the behalf of transgender workers who were terminated, allegedly because of their gender identity.

3. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia.

Nearly 59 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state that currently issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to Freedom to Marry. Decisions by the Supreme Court, including the overturn of DOMA in 2013 and declining to review lower-court decisions upholding same-sex couples’ right to marry, have made it clear that the tide is turning. Marriage equality across the U.S. is no longer a question of if, but when.

As a result, more workers than ever before have the legal right to share health, retirement, and disability benefits with their spouses. They have the right to have their families recognized by their community and their employer. In short, more LGBT employees are able to build their careers without suffering from the prejudices of employers or co-workers.

Not everyone is ecstatic about Tim Cook’s announcement. Some have pointed out the price Cook has to pay for giving back: namely, his privacy, something he famously values.

“This is kinda heartbreaking,” Jim Edwards says in Business Insider. “Straight people don’t have to write essays about their sex life in Businessweek in the hopes of preventing school kids from being bullied. But gay CEOs do.”

And that’s why Cook’s statement matters. When executives trade some of their privacy for a chance at greater acceptance for LGBT workers who toil in less headline-grabbing jobs, the work world becomes a fairer place for everyone.

Cook puts it best:

“When I arrive in my office each morning, I’m greeted by framed photos of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. I don’t pretend that writing this puts me in their league. All it does is allow me to look at those pictures and know that I’m doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”

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Do you think the work world is getting easier for LGBT workers? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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