'I had to deal with inner turmoil almost daily' - the secret cost of hiding your sexuality

Individuals and businesses both pay a price for anti-gay prejudice at work. Brendan Walsh applauds Lord Browne's mixture of autobiography, critique and warning.

by Brendan Walsh
Last Updated: 28 Jun 2016

'Inside, I concealed deep unease and had to deal with inner turmoil almost daily. It is difficult to feel good about yourself when you are embarrassed to show who you actually are. That feeling did not diminish as I rose through the ranks. I grew more scared the more senior I became because I felt I had more to lose.'

Part autobiography, part social criticism, this bold book by John Browne, the former chief executive of BP, addresses the issue of homophobia that still pervades corporations.

Browne juxtaposes his personal journey to the disclosure of his sexuality with the extensive changes that took place in society. His tale begins with his experiences as a public school boy struggling to repress his sexuality in the 1960s and ends with his decision to live openly as a gay man, following a forced 'outing' at the hands of a merciless tabloid press.

At the same time, it tracks the significant legislative changes taking place around him: from the 1960s when homosexual acts ceased to be a criminal offence through to the legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Britain in 2005.

The irony of the evolution of attitudes in society is not lost on Browne, who reveals that his decision to stay in the closet became almost anachronistic during his latter years heading BP. As journalist Matthew Parris wrote in the Times: 'As the years rolled on and attitudes began to shift, it was too late for (Browne) to shift with them, disavowing impressions he had allowed to arise at the start.'

However, as anyone who has been compelled to live a two-tale existence will know, one of the biggest issues facing the decision to come out is the fear that you will be seen as having lacked authenticity before the disclosure is made, and then afterwards too. Browne couldn't bring himself to admit to close friends, let alone colleagues, that he had been living a lie for so long.

The Glass Closet is tremendously well researched and is brought up to date with extensive interviews with leading businessmen and women who discuss how their decision to stay either 'in' or 'out' of the closet has affected their careers and indeed their lives.

For me, the biggest lesson from this book has to be the hidden cost of hidden lives. As Browne puts it: 'I led a double life of deep secrecy and of deep loneliness ... Being gay did not harm my career. But hiding my sexuality made me very unhappy. I was imprisoned by the dread of exposure.'

Browne quotes Louise Young, a teacher who was forced out of her job at an Oklahoma college after officials learned she had visited a lesbian bar, and went on to set up Texas Instruments' LGBT resource group.

Presenting at a company diversity conference in 2001, she describes the cost to productivity if employees aren't comfortable about coming out at work: 'I want you to go back to your offices after this conference and shut the door. Then I want you to remove all vestiges of your family, particularly your spouse. Put the pictures in the drawer and take off your wedding band. You cannot talk about your family. If your partner is seriously ill, you are afraid to acknowledge your relationship because you are afraid you might lose your job. Do all that and see how productive you are.'

Browne admits that he should have come out sooner, then he could have set an encouraging and persuasive example to gay men and women both at BP and in the business world in general. For the gay community, this book is a rallying call to action.

But for all that, many of the business leaders interviewed by Browne for this book declined to be named. Many didn't want to communicate by email in case it left a trail; others refused to meet in public. This is a surprise and we cannot assume we have a fully inclusive society.

If the book has a warning, it's that we must not become complacent about diversity, and progress cannot be left to time alone. As business leaders, we all have a role to play in supporting LGBT employees.

Change does not just happen. We have to create policies, programmes and resource groups, and to create the vision of a workplace without prejudice.

As Browne puts it: 'Constant vigilance is needed to prevent reversion to the darkest part of history.'

Brendan Walsh is executive vice president of American Express Global Corporate Payments, based in London, and formerly chaired American Express' Diversity Council in Europe.


The Glass Closet: Why coming out is good business

John Browne

WH Allen, £16.99

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