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29 Aug 2011

Does a person's sexuality matter when it comes to public interest?

Putting debates on sexuality to one side, the association between wealth and corporate achievement raises broader questions on how we measure personal success. Senthorun Raj writes that while we must recognise how heterosexuality is not the only way of life that enables successful living, we must be cautious to avoid reinforcing the normative idea that economic entrepreneurialism is only what counts as success.

Tim Cook’s ascension to the position of Apple CEO has raised considerable media interest, most notably in relation to his purported sexual orientation. Many have dubbed him ‘the most powerful gay man in the world.’ While a rather grand claim to make, critics have suggested that media obsession with his sexual orientation, has erased reporting on the personal merit related to his success.

While this debate has varied historical and political dimensions, for the purposes of illustration, it is useful to summarise some of the competing views. On one hand, some argue that sexual orientation is an emotional or intimate attachment that should be entitled to privacy. At the same time, others argue that in a culture that assumes the heterosexuality of all people, if there are no ‘out’ powerful gay people, a failure to report diverse sexualities reinforces the idea that being queer and successful are not simultaneously possible.

Rather than subscribe to either view, perhaps our focus should be less on the sexual orientation of the individual in question, and more on the way we discuss sexuality (or other social differences) in the public space. Specifically, we must avoid causally connecting sexual orientation with success or failure. Instead, we must be clear to distinguish between the political connotations of a person’s sexuality and the personal relevance it has for the individual in question.

Putting debates on sexuality to one side, the association between wealth and corporate achievement raises broader questions on how we measure personal triumph and success. 

So the question is – what indexes do we use to measure ‘power’ and ‘success’ in public life?

We only need to look at the impetus behind the international ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, pioneered by advice columnist Dan Savage, to understand the way ‘gay’ success is constructed.

In response to the spate of suicides by young people prompted by homophobia or transphobia, the campaign was launched with the aim of highlighting the enduring power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people across the world, despite disadvantage and discrimination.

While it’s a commendable campaign initiative, as US-based academic Jasbir Puar points out, part of the campaign relies on homogenising what it means to be gay. Reinforcing an aspirational neo-liberal, white, middle-class image of a ‘better future’ does not necessarily connect with a diverse range of young people. In particular, Puar notes that ‘better’ is indexed in terms of ‘coming out’ and transforming social injury into economic triumph. In doing so, these representations produce a very parochial narrative of what ‘gay’ success is. While this critique in no way erases the importance of such a political project, it does signal the need for greater diversity and discussion of difference in our narratives of the future. 

So how does this relate to reporting on the sexuality and power of a CEO? Essentially, we must take care to avoid reproducing stereotypes of success and sexuality that limit it to corporate enterprise or consumer agency. Praise should be contingent on merit and personal circumstances – not homogenised in relation to one aspect of identity or another. 

Tim Cook’s success or failure as a CEO is not confined to his romantic attachments or sexual practices. At the same time, however, we must recognise how his public persona signals the idea (among many others) that heterosexuality is not the only way of life that enables successful living. 

That said, in making these representations, we must be cautious to avoid reinforcing the normative idea that economic entrepreneurialism is only what counts as success.

Ultimately, what this discussion highlights is the need to ask much broader questions about the representation of sexuality in the media. In particular, we must be attentive to the way these media representations a/effect public debate and subsequently shape our dynamic projects for social change. 

Senthorun Raj is the Senior Policy Advisor for the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in New South Wales, Australia. 

Reader's Comments

1. 2011-08-29 20:14  
I like the central issue of this article. Promoting economic entrepreneurialism and just generally material or corporate success, as a means of affirming a homosexual identity, may be too narrow a focus. No doubt that may be the dominant currency these days, but it only creates a "have-nots" versus "haves" in the gay community.

Can we just celebrate other forms of success as well?
2. 2011-08-29 22:16  
The guy may be from a part of the world that...well...is hard on gays. If that is the case, he may be avoiding the issue to protect his family.
Comment #3 was deleted by its author on 2011-08-30 08:21
4. 2011-08-30 01:02  
Re Comment #3: According to reports, the puerto rican senator had notably voted against same-sex marriage, laws against workplace discrimination, etc. So it's no wonder that people are 'interested' that he himself is gay or bisexual, not just because they are obsessed with sex.
5. 2011-08-30 01:06  
Too much intellectualisation of a mundane business decision. Cook is an obviously competent executive who has the confidence of his shareholders to lead Apple Inc forward where Steve Jobs has left off. That's all it is. The fact that Cook happens to be gay is a coincidence. It certainly wasn't the determining factor, I'm sure, in the decision to appoint him. Give this topic a rest, Fridae. Captains of industry can be whatever they choose in their personal and private lives. All shareholders care about is that the CEOs they pick can turn in a neat profit. Amen.
Comment edited on 2011-08-30 01:08:24
6. 2011-08-30 02:11  
I'm with #5 - "heemale" - homosexuality hasn't influenced my role as a company director. What is funny though, because I am straight acting, suppliers treat us to what I'd call sexertising, drooping scantily clad girls with big breasts over their products. A waste of time on me, but I am amazed at how well it works on my colleagues...
7. 2011-08-30 04:21  
just call me too narraow-minded and nonchalant to politics, this most powerful gay man in the world is really not a problem for most of us.
8. 2011-08-30 05:49  
I didn't know Tim Cook "new CEO" was/is gay lol Do you think he's on Fridae? :P haha
9. 2011-08-30 07:01  
Let me put it this way - how many articles about events in business, politics or Whatever do you read where someone is written about, and they say: "Mr Smith, a leading heterosexual..."

It just doesn't happen, right? While there's an *assumption* that pretty much Everybody, Everywhere is Straight - it's not something that's explicitly confirmed.Why would it be? Why is someone's sexuality important, or relevant to their job, or matter of public interest?

It's absolutely important if, for example, someone is condemning homsexuality whilst being gay, themselves. On the other hand, their sexuality is Utterly unimportant if it has absolutely no relevance to who they are, and why they're in the public interest. I mean, does Anyone know if the top 2 or 3 people in charge of the CERN project under Geneva are Gay, or Straight? Anyone?

No.

For persons in the public eye, or of public interest, their sexuality is Only important if it's directly relevant to Why they're known, or why they stand out. If it's entirely irrelevant to the reason they're known (as would be, say, what their favourite colour is, or what they think of Mondays), then it's entirely irrelevant.

Trying to see some kind of relevance, importance or link between fame, respect and public knowledge/interest and their sexuality is wrong. Not just wrong, but patronisingly so. "Oh, I'm sure you'll like Ghandi - he's gay, you know." And? So?! Ghandi, Einstein, Shakespeare, Cassandra... what relevance would their sexuality be to Who they were, and Why they were known? None in My eyes, at least, and I can't be the only person to think so... right?
Comment #10 was deleted by its author on 2011-08-30 07:18
11. 2011-08-30 07:18  
The title of the article itself is misleading. Raj is not exactly (or exclusively) addressing the issue of whether or not Cook's sexuality is relevant in relationship to his success. Raj is asking that we be more critical about the meaning of 'success' itself.

"We must take care to avoid reproducing stereotypes of success and sexuality that limit it to corporate enterprise or consumer agency."

Thank you to Sen Raj for writing this! It's a really well thought out and considered piece, and very sobering for our world obsessed with the materialist, outward, upwardly mobile and careerist visions of successful living.
Comment edited on 2011-08-30 07:18:51
12. 2011-08-30 07:20  
ppl r juz bitch*s, they wanna know everything even if it doesn't affect their lives! omg this one's too fat, that one's too thin, she juz had a nose job. When will ppl learn tht it doesn't matter wot u r:
AS LONG AS U GET THE JOB DONE!! PERIOD.
13. 2011-08-30 10:08  
gay people tend to be bitchy, not exactly good for business. the golden days of apple might come to an end sooner
14. 2011-08-30 11:27  
Why is there so much fuss about his sexuality ??? First of all it's good to know that there is this PLU that has climbed so high in the corporate world. It's an inspiration for all of us.

Whether he is or not is not the issue here. What;s important is that he can do the job well and make PLU proud. We need more of such people to lift us from some form of stereo tying ...like gays behaving promiscuously , bare bods , sweaty and raunchy parties etc ....

I always feel if we want to be respected and taken more seriously , we just got to change our act altogether. Why can we feature a gay in a normal way instead of figure hugging tights and tees , muscles , hot bods etc ????
15. 2011-08-30 12:23  
Well, #14, that's the way things are but it doesn't mean that every individual gay person does not have the power to dissociate him or herself from perceived stereotypes. We each have the power to choose so, it's futile to blame mainstream society for its stereotypical views of what being gay is or isn't. If one leads one's life with self-respect and dignity, those around one will tend to treat one with respect. The disdain with which many in the anti-gay camp view us is due in large part, in my view, to the way many gay people make public spectacles of themselves.
Comment edited on 2011-08-30 12:25:31
16. 2011-08-30 12:28  
Found a great response for those who oppose articles about public figures who may or may not be gay:

"Always love the usual bores who come out with the 'big deal, who cares, who should care?' line when news like this happens.

As a gay man - yes it still is a big deal, yes you should care, thanks for the (lack?) of interest but the world STILL doesn't work that way. I really wish it wasn't a big deal, but with people still being killed, abused, made to feel worthless and sacked for being gay the world over - and even in 'progressive' countries like the States or the UK - so yes it still is."
Comment #17 was deleted by its author on 2011-08-30 15:52
18. 2011-08-30 15:34  
i look forward to very gorgeous-looking iphone5 and ipad3
19. 2011-08-30 16:01  
Straight people make public spectacles of themselves, too. So should we hate straights now? Thin argument, #15.
20. 2011-08-30 18:31  
Ah, #19, your retort is valid. I wish I had a counter-argument but, even if I had, I don't think it'd be well received. It's about choices, I feel, and one can choose self-respect over lasciviousness. The gender identity or sexual orientation is only tangential.
Comment edited on 2011-08-30 21:29:47
21. 2011-08-30 18:44  
plus...LOL
22. 2011-08-31 11:37  
''Tim Cook’s success or failure as a CEO is not confined to his romantic attachments or sexual practices. At the same time, however, we must recognise how his public persona signals the idea (among many others) that heterosexuality is not the only way of life that enables successful living. '' It is well written. Should judge him by his work not his sexual practices.
23. 2011-08-31 11:48  
NO 15 - I totally agree with you .
NO 19 - Straights do make a fool of themselves too, but then they do not go around removing their shirts and exposing themselves to the point that it becomes like a herd mentality. ( It's like birds of feathers flock together - and this is what we tend to see in PLUs. I know I am a culprit too and I wish we can tone this down so that people can take us more seriously . I wish and I hope. No harm wishing for a change.

Whatever it is , I am glad and happy to see more and more PLU making it big in the corporate world so that slowly and surely we will be taken more seriously. KUdos to all !!
24. 2011-08-31 19:58  
I have mixed feelings on the reporting of who is gay and who isn't. I agree that generally speaking ones sexuality should not be pout out into the public domain if the individual chooses not to. On the other hand, we have to remember that Tim Cook has just been made CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world and most people have never heard of him. With any significant appointment it is common for reporters to write a profile which amongst other thing will refer to family status as in married with 3 kids. So in that regard I am not surprised they would report his alleged gay status.

I think that the more people come to realise that gays are everywhere and are not to be feared then we can slowly gain the acceptance and non-discrimination and equality that we all seek.

Sometimes we come out all by ourselves. Other times we are outed by others. Regardless of how it happens, being out is the absolute best way to live life. The more of us there are that are out, the faster we will achieve equality.

25. 2011-09-01 22:53  
Why should it matter? A person is hired for what they can do for a company not what they do in bed.
Comment #26 was deleted by its author on 2011-09-01 22:54
Comment #27 was deleted by its author on 2011-09-01 22:54
28. 2011-09-02 09:14  
Hi No 25 - How I wish the world is so impartial when it comes to hiring. I believe there is this phobia , fear and also hesitation to give someone that opportunity if his sexuality of being gay is known. Somehow in the corporate world , PLU are still not widely accepted. That's just my hunch and of course I hope that will change.

Any with that change , I also do not hope that PLU go out in full force with our feathers and sequins , hot bare bods , tight fitting tees and shorts that even an anorexic finds it hard to breathe to state our point across. Let us blend and not stick out like a sore thumb. We can do what we like and choose to behind close doors. That's our own call !
29. 2011-09-03 05:16  
Funny why they were not as obsessed with Steve Job's 'heterosexuality'...I hope the public would regard,and judge, Tim Cook purely on his merits/performance like they did with Jobs, not his sexual preferences.

30. 2011-09-11 01:56  
#13 - 'gay people tend to be bitchy' !! Please speak for yourself or does it reflect the company you keep?
Your stereotyping is like some straights' view of gay men .. that they are always on the lookout to seduce young men.

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