Gay business

Vidya Ram | Updated on July 25, 2014

Lord John Browne   -  Vidya Ram

Lord John Browne on the importance of coming out and not running two lives

Is it possible to hold a senior position in business after coming out of the closet? For much of his career, Lord John Browne, the former chief executive of British Petroleum (BP), believed the answer to this question was ‘no’. Growing up in Britain at a time when homosexuality was banned (until 1967) and where legally enforced discrimination remained in place long after, Browne, now 66, found it impossible to open up to his colleagues in the early stages of his career. From then, maintaining the myth became ingrained, even as society changed around him, reinforced by the experiences of his own family. His mother, an Auschwitz survivor, had long warned him of the dangers that your secrets in the wrong hands could pose, as well as the risks of being in a minority. His decision proved immensely dear. In 2007, when a British tabloid attempted to run claims made by his former partner, he sought an injunction, in the course of which he made false statements to the court. Things soon fell apart, and Browne stepped down as the head of BP after a 41-year career.

Seven years on, Browne’s answer to that first question is an unqualified ‘yes’. Now a partner at private equity firm Riverstone Holdings, and chairman of shale gas developer Cuadrilla Resources, he has positioned himself as one of the most vocal spokespersons for homosexual rights within the world of business. Earlier this year, he published The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business, an emotional and personal tale of his own experience of remaining in the closet, and the immense improvement to his life he has experienced since coming out. He also chronicles the experiences of others who have chosen to come out — stories, he hopes, will inspire others to do so, and push CEOs to put in place the policies and systems for as inclusive a workplace as possible.

“I wanted to tell my story so that nobody would ever get into the same situation as I did,” he says at a recent meeting at his office in central London. “It was a bad situation,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was running two lives, which was exciting to start with — almost like James Bond when I was young — but over time you invest in two lives and keep your business and gay life separate. It is very stressful and eventually ends in catastrophe.”

The toll that remaining in the closet took on him was evident to others. “I knew there was something strange. You were far too reserved… you didn’t talk about your family, your friends, what you did on weekends,” a long-standing acquaintance recently told him. Not being able to be yourself in an office can be very undermining to a person, he points out — you can’t have photos of your loved ones, talk about your time with them, or grieve when the worst happens.

And it can be harmful beyond the individual too, Browne points out, as he makes the business case for employers creating an inclusive environment. “They are managing two lives and they can’t be wholly engaged with the purpose of the company and therefore productivity goes down.”

We turn to India where, following the Supreme Court decision in December, gay sex has been re-criminalised. Is Indian business held back by the legal situation? “It must be,” he says firmly. “Anything that reduces inclusion — and it’s not just this area but others such as race, religion — holds an economy and a society back. These are things that people can’t change, and you must include them. By including people, you engage people, and when you engage people, you increase their productivity.”

We talk about the role the business community can play. “Within a company you can be uncompromising. You can say that within the walls of my company I am not going to allow anyone to be bullied or pushed around. I want people to be open,” he says. The book includes examples of the efforts of a number of MNCs in India to create an inclusive environment, including consulting firm Bain Capital, which annually organises a conference for LGBT staff from across the world, and Goldman Sachs, which has a 300-strong LGBT network in India.

However, Browne is eager to stress that it is not just in the 77 countries where homosexuality is a crime (many of which, he notes, are Commonwealth countries, where laws were brought in under the British Empire) that must be of concern. In the West, there remain few senior people at the top of business. There are no openly gay CEOs in the US’ S &P 700, and only one in the UK’s FTSE 100. While researching the book, Browne was particularly surprised at the reluctance and fear of young people in their 20s to come out, pointing to how much still needed to be done. “Constant vigilance is needed. Intolerance can pop up very quickly and can be very damaging.”

( is currently collating personal stories of people who chose to come out from across the world. Contributions can be made through the website.)

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Published on July 25, 2014
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