Looking back, I guess we in the media might have asked Apple CEO Tim Cook if he were gay.
Me especially, since I am gay. And, like many, I had heard all the assumptions about the self-effacing exec’s sexual orientation, even though he and I had never once discussed the issue.
Still, I thought about asking him that very question once when Cook was sitting onstage with me and Walt Mossberg during our second interview at the D: All Things Digital conference in 2013. Cook, who does not give up much at all on any topic, was being typically evasive in answering some query about some Apple initiative, and it was frustrating.
Because few people knew much about the new Apple CEO, who had long lived under the very deep shadow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, I suddenly had an impulse to shake things up, and I wondered to myself what would happen if I asked Cook about his personal life.
I thought I would start with a question many in the tech community seemed to have: What’s it like to be the most powerful gay executive in the world?
Not surprisingly, I immediately began to calculate the repercussions if I went there: Exactly how much flack would I get for outing him without his consent? Would he bolt from the stage once the word “gay” came out of my mouth, or just sit like a deer in the headlights and say nothing? And, perhaps most importantly, what if he actually answered the question?
And then, just as quickly, I thought: Would this just be a sandbagging grab for attention? Why exactly did I care? Did it matter to his job if he were public about his sexual preference? And, while it is always a good thing to have another iconic gay person be public, wasn’t it his choice as to when that would happen?
So I chickened out, and the moment passed, of course, without me asking the question onstage. But Cook finally answered it yesterday in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, in perhaps the most epic coming-out essay I have ever seen.
Why? Because it was non-apologetic and proud and bold in its assertions about his preference being “a gift from God”; because it contained deft references to the fact that he was not just gay, but a “son of the South” and a “fitness nut”; and, perhaps most of all, because it explained clearly why giving up some bit of his much-cherished privacy to help others was now worth the price he would pay.
I would imagine there was a lot of thought that went into the post, and a lot of editing, too, of every single word, all carefully planned and edited. But what struck me the most was how close it hewed to the Tim Cook I had dealt with in the handful of instances we have met since he took over at Apple.
More to the point, the essay — combined with the recent spate of well-received products and stellar financial results — represents not just a personal coming out for Cook, but also one for him as the leader of one of the most powerful tech companies in the world.
As I said above, Cook has spent a lot of his life in a behind-the-scenes role as Mr. Smooth Operator to Jobs’s Visionary Genius, and that has resulted in him being almost a complete cipher for the digerati in Silicon Valley. When he was hand-selected by Jobs as his heir to Apple’s empire, the most interesting thing people could seem to come up with about him was that he sure as heck knew how to get those Chinese manufacturers in line.
Otherwise, he eschewed the limelight during his first years, seeming to prefer to keep up that behind-the-scenes persona intact, despite the fact that he held the most high-profile job in Silicon Valley. This is in drastic contrast to everyone else in tech, who share — with great calculation, of course — quite a bit about their personal lives with the eager media.
Google’s Sergey Brin kite-surfs! Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a space nut! SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk wants to die on Mars! Twitter’s Dick Costolo was once a stand-up comic! Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is taking Chinese lessons! Box’s Aaron Levie sure is a funny tweeter!
About Cook, nothing. Some dribs and drabs of information did emerge, although only slowly, and mostly around his executive style. Such as that he was perhaps more adept at politics than his placid exterior would seem at first glance when he managed to shove longtime (and dyspeptic) Apple exec and Jobs favorite Scott Forstall out of a job. That he was willing to admit mistakes more, as with poor retail hiring decisions, and offered much quicker than usual apologies on product snafus such as with Maps and, more recently, iOS updates. That he pushed for a slightly more open Apple, including showing off other execs more prominently at the company’s annual events.
Still, as a person he has largely been a blank slate that the media has projected upon, which is how he seemed to like it. That is, until recently, when more and more about his own personal traits have emerged well beyond the big revelation that he really liked to go to the gym and was there daily at 5 am to work out.
And all of it seemed to point to the direction of him finally talking about his being a gay man.
In a speech at Auburn University, his alma mater, at the end of last year, he spoke on the issue of human rights, and added his own experience to the mix: “Since these early days, I have seen and have experienced many types of discrimination, and all of them were rooted in the fear of people that were different than the majority.”
When he said that, I was struck by it immediately, and thought: He’s going to come out soon.
It’s hard to explain to someone who has not had to come out what prompts that feeling, after living in the closet for a lifetime. While everyone searched yesterday for some kind of dramatic reason for the Cook declaration, it’s a fairly simple equation, even if you are out to friends, co-workers and family, as Cook apparently has been:
You get tired of lying. You get tired of hiding. You get tired of not saying.
I remember my own series of outing myself moments in my twenties, after I got weary of playing idiotic cat-and-mouse games with my mother. She knew I was gay, but never addressed it, despite a growing tension between us about the issue. I vowed that when she asked me directly, I would tell her, flat-out. She did and I did and, as ugly as the ensuing months were between us, it was a moment of profound relief for me and her.
In late June, Cook seemed to be moving to that very conclusion by showing up at San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade, wearing an Apple Pride T-shirt and selfie-posing with employees who were marching.
That came after CNBC host Simon Hobbs said out loud on the air what everyone talked about more quietly. “I think Tim Cook is fairly open about the fact that he is gay,” declared Hobbs, to dead silence from the panel. “Oh, dear, was that an error? I thought he was open about it.”
No, not so much. Except he was starting to emerge from his self-imposed cocoon, posing for a fun cover for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, and doing a series of photos of him kicking back casually on Apple’s campus. Noted the magazine, as if they were doing a profile of George Clooney:
“A decade ago, when he first became a public figure, Cook, now 53, was often caricatured as Jobs’s logical, icy sidekick—the Spock to his Kirk. In person, Cook defies those expectations. He bounds toward Apple employees, posing for on-campus selfies and answering every question regardless of the holes it eats into his schedule. He can also be quite emotional about a range of subjects close to his heart, from Auburn University football to social justice.”
It even ended with a coincidentally — or not? — evocative image of Cook at its Sept. 9 event, listening to a OneRepublic song, “I Lived,” on his iPhone, and quoting the lyrics: “Hope when you take that jump, you don’t fear the fall/Hope when the crowd screams out, they’re screaming your name.”
Well, if that was not a different kind of coming out, I don’t know what was.
He followed the cover with two big Apple events, unveiling new products created completely under his leadership — the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the Apple Watch, and more. Then, last week, Cook’s Apple blew past all Wall Street expectations with a quarterly report that showed huge momentum across the entire company.
With his CEO status now as firm as it has ever been, and the company pretty unassailable, Cook seemed completely ready, criticizing his home state of Alabama in a speech there about its failures in the civil rights arena. “As a state, we took too long to step toward equality,” he said. “We were too slow on equality for African-Americans. We were too slow on interracial marriage, and we are still too slow for the equality for the LGBT community.”
That was this past Monday. At a dinner I attended earlier this week, what he said came up in conversation, and someone wondered what he was up to. With no idea about what he was about to do, I had only one response: “I think we are finally about to meet the real Tim Cook.”
And, while we might have known it all along about him, it’s nice to finally be able to say hello to the entire man.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.