Cook’s announcement that he’s gay is part of his ‘empathetic’ Apple mission

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple’s Tim Cook is the first publicly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Amid the din of applause, one might also ask: What took so long?

Public confirmations of sexuality have increased in Hollywood, and have started to appear in the sports world, including that of football player Michael Sam, who came out right before this year’s NFL draft. But it’s rare to see in the traditionally conservative business world, let alone at one of the world’s most profitable tech companies.

The ripple effect of Cook’s essay in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine Thursday was immediate, generating tweets from the likes of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson(“Inspirational words”) and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (“Inspired by @tim_cook”).

Before Cook, the most senior exec identified as gay was British Petroleum’s John Browne, who resigned in 2007 after his sexuality was revealed by a British tabloid. He has since lobbied for more openness in the workplace, particularly in his June book,The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business.

One reason why being gay in business may remain relatively taboo has “to do with perception of strength, which it shouldn’t,” says Daryl Lee, global CEO of media agency UM. “You don’t want to take any risks in business and you don’t want to be seen as weak.”

But if you’re gay and come out, he says, “it can be a source of strength.”

Lee has been out for his entire career. He sees more acceptance of gay leaders in the last few years, and credits the rise of marriage equality to helping foster that. “Things are changing so quickly around LGBT prominence, respect and status in this country, (and) I suppose business is catching up,” he says.

Some observers sense Cook’s statement will have a noticeable impact on office culture.

“This serves as an opening of the door for other CEOs, senior-level managers and executives to say, ‘I’m ready to bring my authentic self to the office,’ (that) it’s an asset to be out and proud in the workplace,” says Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

Going one step further is Chad Griffin, president of Humans Right Campaign, the organization that noted he was the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO: “Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. … Millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life.”

It’s interesting to note that in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cook’s bombshell didn’t detonate like it did elsewhere. In fact, longtime Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo barely raised an eyebrow.

“I saw an e-mail come through about Tim’s essay and I didn’t even open it, that’s how much this isn’t news here,” says Saffo. “It was more like, ‘Oh, Tim’s official now. Cool.’ Perhaps that tells you much of what you need to know about Silicon Valley. It’s hard not to have friends across the gay and lesbian community here.”

Indeed, it wouldn’t have taken much to predict this turn of events: Cook led Apple’s contingent at a recent gay pride parade here, and was No. 2 behind entertainer Ellen Degeneres on Out magazine’s annual list of powerful LGBT figures. And Cook hardly is alone as a tech force who is gay. Just recently, the White House named Google(x) whiz Megan Smith, formerly CEO of the gay website Planet Out, as the nation’s chief technology officer.

“Centuries from now, people will look back at this time not only for the extraordinary technology innovations that keep coming, but also for great shifts in civil rights and inclusion of talent from across our world,” says Smith. “Tim is a big part of both of these important movements.”

Cook’s comes at time when the nation continues to grapple with the issue of racial and gender equality.

Although the leader of the world’s most powerful tech company may be openly gay, homosexuality remains illegal in nearly 80 countries. And while gay marriage advocates have seen their causes adopted in a growing number of states, it’s safe to say Silicon Valley is not America at large.

“We still have 29 states where Tim could legally be fired by Apple for being gay,” says Todd Sears, a former investment banker and founder of Out Leadership. He says Cook’s announcement will spotlight the hypocrisy of companies here and abroad.

“In Singapore, which considers itself in the global business community, it’s not only illegal to be gay, but its highest court has declined to overturn the law again,” he says. “So it raises the question, when Tim Cook goes to Singapore, what are they going to do? Arrest the CEO of the world’s most valuable company?”

Cook’s proud declaration invoked the inspiration the Alabaman felt from the twin moral towers of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, both of whom pursued a life of helping others.