Tim Cook + the Unbearable Lightness of Escape - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Tim Cook + the Unbearable Lightness of Escape

Tim Cook + the Unbearable Lightness of Escape

By Eugene S. Robinson

Tim Cook
SourceLucy Nicholson/Reuters


Because you don’t have to understand to be understanding.

By Eugene S. Robinson

As a longtime lover of confrontation, the appeal of gayness always struck me as many and manifold. Most specifically: the experience of watching people squirm when I told them that I was gay.

The uncomfortable shift as they tried to make sense of it all, while I just let it all hang there for a moment, or several moments, of discomfort. Witnessing folks forced to challenge whatever notions they had about what constituted a gay man: totally delicious. Except for the fact that I wasn’t gay, the prospect of this scene alone made it almost interesting enough for me to want to claim allegiance. Even if saying so was a luxury for a hetero man who wasn’t going to be losing any jobs over it, could get married without sanction and wasn’t likely to get beaten up over it.

If you’re an African-American, your otherness is not occult at all. In fact, it’s the first thing known about you.

But for the friends who agonized over coming out to me, the roommates who were scared to hug their lovers in the houses we shared, or for Tim Cook, the current CEO of a company where I worked in days past, the coming-out experience seemed as difficult and fraught as … well, there’s no comparative experience, really. No way to understand the years of negative messaging all filtering through perhaps a personal sense that yes, indeed, they WERE talking about you. Because if you’re an African-American, your otherness is not occult at all. In fact, it’s the first thing known about you. Same if you’re Asian. Or white. Being Jewish is a little more sotto voce, but the likelihood that your family wouldn’t know that you were Jewish? Very low.

“Bro, that guy is a faggot, man.” Even given how I spend most of my time — hanging out with fighters — it was still shocking to hear a fighter actually use the term “faggot” specifically to describe a sexual orientation, and not as just a generalized, but thoughtless, term of abuse.

“What do you care?” The guy I was talking to was a professional fighter and in my weight class, and though we were friendly enough that I didn’t expect an outright beating, the room got quiet. On scales of toughness, he was orders of magnitude above me. 

“I mean, why would you give a rat’s ass what one guy does with another guy? In fact, I think that guys that are overly concerned about that have some concerns of their own about their own … appetites.”

Iconoclastic as it may have been, Apple was also more conservative than could have been guessed.

And there was that scrumptious, disruptive uncomfortability again. He changed topics with some forced laughter, and I was left again with a sense of how heavy a load this crap, this homosexual hate, can be. Even at Apple, a place where I worked for almost two years right after Steve Jobs returned from exile at NeXT, a place where it wasn’t uncommon to see workers working their way to the cafeteria at lunchtime wearing no shoes, socks or shirts — this knee-jerk hetero homo-fear thing was a thing.

Because Apple, iconoclastic as it may have been, was also more conservative than could have been guessed. Like the entire Silicon Valley. A valley whose history housed both Jobs and noted inventor of the transistor and racial theorist (read: racist) William Shockley. And while not Conservative with a capital C, conservative enough that things that shouldn’t have felt criminal most certainly did. Even for people who knew better.

Like: a freelance designer I worked with at Apple. He called and asked to meet me. He hemmed and hawed through the meeting, seeming distracted and more nervous than made me feel comfortable (as a noted paranoiac, I figure any new news will be bad news). Then finally this: “Can I ask you a question?”


“Are you … straight?”

I laughed. “Which answer would make you feel most uncomfortable?” He shrugged, I answered, and only after it was more than clear that this was going to have absolutely no effect on our work dealings did he relax. 

And he was just a guy for hire. Which is to say, do not think for a second that, very rich man though he is, this was any easier for Tim Cook, who’s already facing criticism that he hasn’t gone far enough. In fact, it might have been a good deal harder, since stockholders don’t care who you sleep with as long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line — but if who you sleep with affects the bottom line? Then they’re going to be concerned. And thus far, outside of worries about China, Russia and parts of Africa that might be socially resistant to homo-friendly change, it’s steady as she goes.

And it’s about damned time, too.

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