Some CEOs fear being outed means being ousted
Discrimination • Corporate corner suites still have barriers to gay civil rights.
Published: June 27, 2014 04:49PM
Updated: June 27, 2014 04:49PM

In 2007, John Browne, Lord Browne of Madingley, resigned as chief executive of the British oil giant BP after being outed as gay by the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday: “The True Story About Lord Browne — by ex-rent boy lover.”

Browne said then, “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter,” tacitly confirming he was gay. Now, he has written a candid and unsparing book about his tortured life as a closeted gay chief executive, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business.” He thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge he is gay.

After being outed, Browne was under no illusions he’d ever be chairman or chief executive of another publicly traded company. “To a headhunter I would have been seen as ‘controversial,’ too hot to handle,” he writes. “Sadly, there were some people, mostly from the business world, who never again displayed any warmth to me.”

Such attitudes may help explain why there are no publicly gay chief executives at any Fortune 500 company, according to Richard Zweigenhaft, co-author of “Diversity in the Power Elite” and a psychology professor at Guilford College in North Carolina.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any gay chief executives at major corporations — Browne is unique only because he was outed — and there are gay chief executives today, some of whom lead relatively open lives. But thus far, none have been willing to publicly acknowledge being gay. I reached out to several of them for this article, and all refused to be identified.

That makes the corporate corner suite one of the last frontiers for gay civil rights, now that even a professional football draft pick, Michael Sam, has publicly acknowledged being gay.

This seems especially baffling given recent advances in gay civil rights. And corporate chief executives are ostensibly evaluated by objective measures of financial performance, which should render their sexual orientation irrelevant.

But conforming to social norms has long been an unspoken requirement for the top jobs at public corporations. And even for gay people who have managed to get there, coming out publicly violates a norm that chief executives don’t court personal publicity or raise issues that might distract from the company’s business. “There may be what’s known as ‘pioneer fear,’” said Kenji Yoshino, professor of constitutional law at New York University and co-author of “Uncovering Talent, a New Model for Inclusion,” “No one wants to be first, with some asterisk after their name.”

Zweigenhaft added that chief executives typically don’t have the personality of civil rights trail blazers. “The kind of person who becomes a CEO isn’t going to surprise the board by coming out in The New York Times,” he said.

Although women and blacks are more visible, they face similar pressures in the executive suite. “Corporate boards tend to be older, white, male and conservative, and they want CEOs they feel comfortable with,” Zweigenhaft said. “Women who make it to the top need to show they can be one of the guys. African-Americans can’t seem threatening. You’re not going to find Jesse Jackson on any Fortune 500 boards.”

Browne says it was his strenuous efforts to conform to the homophobia he confronted — “my overwhelming desire to conceal my sexual orientation,” as he puts it — that led to his undoing. Like anyone leading a secret life, he was vulnerable to blackmail, and his former lover, a 23-year-old escort he’d met via the Internet, sold his story to a tabloid after their relationship ended and Browne stopped sending him money.

“My greatest regret in life is that I wasn’t honest while I was chief executive,” he told me recently over coffee in New York, where he was promoting his book. “I led a great company for many years, and not to let people see who I was, was a big error. People need to see role models. I could have left BP in a very different way.”

Still, he acknowledged that he probably never would have publicly admitted that he was gay had he not been forced to. “I was very well practiced at leading two lives,” he said. “I’d convinced myself the downside was far worse than the upside. And I was reserved by nature. We’re not the types to wear our hearts on our sleeves.”

Like many people of his generation (Browne is 66), to admit being gay seemed unthinkable during his formative years. When he was at Cambridge University, homosexual acts were a crime, homosexuality was deemed a mental illness and gay people were subject to bullying and blackmail. He never told his mother he was gay, even though she lived with him before she died. She was a Romanian Jew, who was betrayed to the Nazis and survived internment at Auschwitz. She conveyed the sense that “I should never reveal a secret — it will be used against you,” he said. He was acutely aware that gays were also victims of the Holocaust. And being gay was taboo in the nearly all-male outposts in Alaska and the North Sea, where he worked for BP.

Like Browne, “the average age of a CEO is somewhere in the 50s or 60s,” said Todd Sears, the founder of Out on the Street. “When they started their careers, being gay was considered a disease, it was illegal and it was absolutely career-ending. Being in the closet at work has been a way of life for these people for 30 years.” But he thinks this may change. “There are a significant number of younger openly gay people one or two levels down from the top who are likely to be CEOs within a few years,” he said.

But research by Yoshino suggests there’s still a barrier at the top. “We discovered extremely high levels of covering behavior at the C-suite level,” Yoshino said, referring to hiding qualities that may be perceived as detrimental, like being gay. “I thought covering would be most intense when you were junior. But we discovered that when people are under consideration for the top job, they start covering again.”

For Browne, the higher he rose in BP, “the more dangerous it would be to come out,” he writes, “because my ascent was accompanied by a rapidly expanding public profile.” He worried that any disclosure would damage his ability to negotiate with openly homophobic business and political leaders, including Vladimir Putin of Russia.

“I learned to dissemble without thinking,” he writes. Too embarrassed to admit the truth, he told people he’d met his young male companion while jogging, a false statement he instinctively made [but then corrected] as part of an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the publication of The Mail on Sunday article. The lie in a judicial proceeding put him at risk of criminal charges, though none was ever filed.

“I felt trapped for much of my adult life and was unable to reveal who I was to the world. I led a double life of deep secrecy and of deep isolation, walled off from those closest to me,” Browne writes. “Hiding my sexuality made me very unhappy.”

As Browne left BP’s headquarters the day he resigned, someone yelled “gay scum” at him. And “driving away from the corporation that I helped to build felt like dying.”

Lee Scott, chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores at the time, called him and, “with sadness in his voice,” withdrew an informal offer to join Wal-Mart’s board. “The situation was untenable, given the active religious right in Arkansas,” Scott said, according to Browne’s book.

Wal-Mart has banned discrimination against gay employees since 2003, according to a spokesman, and Scott championed diversity during his tenure at the nation’s largest employer. Wal-Mart had a gay board member at the time (though not someone who is publicly gay), and Scott rescinded the offer not because Browne was gay, but because of allegations of misconduct leveled by his former lover, the Wal-Mart spokesman said. (A subsequent investigation by BP cleared Browne of any misconduct.)

But the Wal-Mart rejection, he said, coming right after he was outed only reinforced his perception that a publicly gay person wouldn’t be welcome at the highest levels of major corporations. He expected to spend the rest of his life in some form of lonely exile.

Instead, he encountered an outpouring of support, from both longtime acquaintances and strangers. His belief that he’d managed to conceal his true identity proved illusory: Most people who knew him had long ago figured out he was gay, even if they never brought it up while he was a powerful chief executive. (Clue: “A grown man bringing his mother to company events,” as he puts it.)

He now believes BP would have been better off if he had come out earlier, and his concerns about how it might hurt BP’s business were misplaced. “If leaders like Vladimir Putin or the president of Uganda want to do business with you, they’ll ignore it,” he said. “And if not, they won’t.”

Far from being shunned, Browne is now a partner at Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm, where he focuses on renewable energy. He’s the chairman of the trustees of the Tate Galleries, and chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation. He is a member of the House of Lords and is the British government’s lead nonexecutive director, overseeing a group of business people trying to make the government more efficient and businesslike.

On a personal level, after he was outed, he stopped smoking cigars and started exercising. And he had coffee with a 32-year-old Vietnamese man - someone who wrote him a letter after his resignation - and fell in love. The two have been together since.

The still-reserved Browne, who once couldn’t bring himself to mention being gay, has now written a book about it in part, he told me, to encourage others to be open. As he wrote in his book: “Doing so will force you to be honest, transparent and brave. In the end, those qualities will serve you well, no matter how much you have already climbed or how far you still have to go.”