AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Coming out of the closet is the most important act in a gay person’s life.

It is a gift to those who are already exposed to prejudice and an example to those who live secret, frightened lives.

Harvey Milk is best remembered as a pioneering gay politician who was murdered in San Francisco City Hall, but there is another reason to hold him in memory: his most important cause, getting people to come out.

“I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let [the] world know,” he said in 1977. “That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.”

Add to that list “CEO of the most valuable corporation in the world.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook came out this week, not to his friends and colleagues, who already knew, but to the rest of us.

“I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” Cook wrote.

In the majority of U.S. states, that statement could cost Tim Cook his job. That’s because, 37 years after Harvey Milk urged every doctor, lawyer and architect to come out, it is perfectly legal in most of this country to discriminate against gay people, to fire them on the basis of their sexuality.

And then there’s the rest of the world. Apple is a multinational corporation, worth about $230 billion more than Exxon and more than twice the value of GE. It does business in countries that shame, imprison and torture people for loving those of the same gender. Who knows what ripple effects Cook’s statement will have on his business, or what impact it will have in the cultural lives of those countries. Surely the easiest thing, for business reasons, would have been to stay hidden.

I asked Matthew Breen, editor of The Advocate, what Cook’s public disclosure means. Here’s what he said:

It’s never, ever too late to come out, and it’s wonderful that [the 53-year-old] Tim Cook has done so. By recognizing that, as he says, there’s something “more important” than his concerns about privacy, he’s acknowledging that coming out can have enormous impact, and benefit for others. I’m also gratified that he feels being gay is a gift, and offers him a perspective on the minority experience, and has made him empathetic and made his life richer.

Cook’s sexuality does not come entirely as a revelation. The tech press has been speculating about his personal life since he became the very public face of Apple. Casey Newton, a gay writer at The Verge, explains why this week’s news is significant: “It is one thing for the media to whisper to one another, or to post on their blogs, that the CEO of America’s most valuable company is a gay man. And it is a quite another for the man himself to step up to the microphone, with confidence and grace, and tell us himself. We knew Cook was gay; what we didn’t know is how he felt about it. Or, at a time when being gay is still very much a political act, what he planned to do with it.”

None of this is to excuse Apple’s behavior as a corporation under Cook’s leadership and during his time previously as one of its top executives. Apple is one of the pioneers of outsourcing and the exploitation of cheap labor overseas. The company dodges taxes by stashing profits across the globe. Apple has helped turn consumer electronics into disposable things you throw away rather than upgrade, meaning many of those toxic iPhone ingredients get shipped beyond our borders to pollute the rest of the world. There is much to condemn about Apple and Tim Cook’s part in it, but, as we say above, this is not a lifetime achievement award. It’s recognition of a brave act.

No amount of money or power makes coming out of the closet easy. There is a shame, imposed by the dominant culture, that every gay child at some point knows. At best, we are told, “it’s OK” to be gay. Often, we are told much worse things. According to the Trevor Project, gay kids are four times likelier to attempt suicide than straight kids. “Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average,” the group adds. Even kids who merely question their sexuality, which is a common part of growing up, are three times likelier to attempt suicide.

We are not far enough removed from 1977.

Harvey Milk, speaking into a tape recorder, foresaw his own assassination. He said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”

For his coming out and celebrating the gift — and not merely the fact — of being gay, we acknowledge Tim Cook as our Truthdigger of the Week.

Note: I asked Truthdig contributor and author of “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy,” Scott Tucker, for his take on our decision. His activism on behalf of gay rights is unimpeachable and his criticism of corporations is well documented. His response is here, and worth reading.

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