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Some CEOs fear being outed means being ousted

First Published      Last Updated Jun 27 2014 04:49 pm
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"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 Wal-Mart had a gay board member at the time (though not someone who is publicly gay), and Scott rescinded the offer not because Browne was gay, but because of allegations of misconduct leveled by his former lover, the Wal-Mart spokesman said.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."