‘Glass Closet’: The double life of a gay chief executive
“I was not a victim,” declares John Browne, the former chief executive of BP, in his new book, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business,” published by Harper Business. “We must own up to our choices and I had made some bad ones.”
The former CEO did indeed make a bad choice seven years ago. Trying to stop a newspaper from publishing a banal exposé based on claims by a former boyfriend, he made a false witness statement.
When the lie — and his long-hidden sexuality — became known, he quit the oil group, apologized for the false statement and vowed not to comment on his life further.
That he had a change of heart on the latter point is to be welcomed. “The Glass Closet” is a brave and practical examination of a sad conundrum: Why, in an age of progress in workplace equality, do so many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees still feel they cannot be open about their sexual orientation?
This slim book expands on Browne’s 2010 memoir “Beyond Business,” which briefly touched on the debilitating experience of having to hide part of his identity from colleagues for four decades.
The new account is bolstered by interviews with others who have been through similar experiences and paints his double life as a cautionary tale, not a “workable blueprint for a business career.”
During his early years at the oil and gas group, the young manager felt obliged to tag along when colleagues went to watch women “wiggle around” in strip clubs on work trips. He found the whole thing “appalling” but felt it was imperative to blend in.
He describes how, on a rare foray into a New York gay bar in the 1970s, he bumped into a colleague and was left terrified that this might lead to broader exposure at work: “I could not imagine that anyone else in the office would be gay.... I wanted to sink through the floor.” The prose is terse, but you feel for him.
Promotion to the top job made it harder to reconcile the different elements of his life, not least because BP’s high-profile purchase of Amoco meant security staff were next door as he slept while in the U.S. “The closet door was now nailed shut,” he observes.
In 2006, he had an opportunity to tear out those nails during an appearance on a BBC radio show. Coming out then would certainly have been more dignified than the tabloid assault a year later.
But the veteran manager held his tongue. Conditioned by the hostile attitudes of the society of his youth, he had failed to appreciate that his secret had lost its power to shock most people.
Now working in private equity and chair of fracking company Cuadrilla Resources, Browne advises rising LGBT employees not to assume that there will be a perfect moment to come out — a mistake he made. There will always be some risk or friction involved.
Furthermore, he encourages companies to take seven actions to create a framework for staff to be open about their sexuality if they wish.
These include encouraging heterosexual managers to be “straight allies” to LGBT staff, while also creating in-house LGBT groups and getting the CEO to make it clear that there is no stigma in coming out.
The anxiety some interviewees felt about talking to Browne for the book, even with the promise of anonymity, is one sign that much still needs to be done before business can give itself a pat on the back.
But there is an underlying optimism to “The Glass Closet,” not least in its account of how a buttoned-up and uneasy man — someone who worked more than he lived — stumbled upon what appears to be a more balanced and happy life.
Adam Jones is an editor at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.
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