John Browne reached the pinnacle of his profession while hiding a secret that eventually ended his run as the CEO and chairman of global energy giant BP.
Allan Gilmour rose to chief financial officer at the Ford Motor Co. and was thought a shoo-in to become its next CEO. It didn’t happen. He, too, harbored a secret.
They were gay.
Even as corporate America jumped ahead of the rest of America in its recognition of equal treatment for gays and lesbians, it looked at life differently at its highest levels.
Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay several weeks ago. McClatchy Co. Chairman Kevin McClatchy came out in 2012. Until then, Browne and Gilmour had been the highest-level corporate executives to have openly embraced their homosexuality. And both did so only after leaving their jobs, and they never discussed their sexuality in professional quarters.
“I did not expect that I was going to get fired, but there was a chance that it was going to be controversial,” said Gilmour. “I think that is particularly true in a consumer-products industry.”
There was another hitch.
“I didn’t want the media to always put gay in front of my name. I thought it would be detrimental, and I’m thinking of the ‘far right.’ . . . I was thinking more the distraction I would be,” said Gilmour, whose orientation was never clearly identified as the reason he was passed over and who was later brought back in another role.
Calling the phenomenon of hiding his homosexuality “The Glass Closet,” Browne published a book earlier this year by that title.
His own tale is a cautionary one. Browne was “outed” after an ex-boyfriend sought to extort money. The relationship itself, and the perjury committed to hide it, said Browne, grew out of living a closeted, bifurcated life.
“You run separate lives,” Browne said in an interview, noting that the environment is now better for a gay CEO to go public. “It’s not all roses, it’s not all perfect, but it is so, so much better.”
“Old people think great progress has been made, and young people think there is a lot to do. Both are right,” acknowledged Gilmour. “Selfishly, I do wish there were more openly gay CEOs. Sure.”
One motivation for coming out is to show it can be done.
“There aren’t enough role models around,” Browne said. “But it is important to show people who is ‘out’ there, who came out, who was successful.”
The dearth of gay role models in public life drove filmmaker Cindy Abel to release the movie “Breaking Through.” It tells the stories of politicians who came out of the closet and into the halls of power.
“I remembered my own coming out and how desperate I felt, and how I wish there had been some positive role models,” Abel, the daughter of evangelical missionaries who came out herself at 30, said in an interview.
There are reasons executives choose to stay in the glass closet. Over a 35-year career at Ford, Gilmour routinely used a “married to the job” response to brush off personal questions as he advanced to executive vice president, chief financial officer and vice chairman.
“I suppose with hindsight one was very cautious about spreading what went on outside of work. When you get to chitchatting (it’s), ‘What did you do over the weekend? . . . Wasn’t it good that the Tigers won?’ ” he said. “I think it is true that when one is out, freer isn’t the right word, but it’s in the neighborhood.”
Gilmour inadvertently outed himself in 1996, when, in retirement, he gave an interview to a local gay publication and the word spread across mainstream media. It raised questions of whether his sexual orientation was the reason he was passed up for the top job in 1992.
He retired in 1995 but was plucked back by CEO Bill Ford for another stint in the executive suite as CFO in 2002, this time openly gay and with a life partner.
It isn’t clear to Gilmour that his sexual orientation was the reason he didn’t get the top job, but he thinks it was fair game in the discussions.
“When we get to the CEO level, the board and the decision-makers have to be pretty darn sure there aren’t any controversial issues.” said Gilmour, who eventually retired again and later served as the president of Wayne State University in Detroit.