When Tim Cook succeeded the late Steve Jobs as Apple’s CEO, he also declared that he was “proud to be gay.”
Cook wasn’t in the closet all these years. He had simply managed to strike a balance between his work and his personal life which includes his sexuality. In deference to Martin Luther King’s famous question, “What are you doing for others?“, Cook described his “trade-off with [his] own privacy” as potentially helpful to young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. And now, the managing director of VIP Industries, Asia’s biggest luggage maker, has come out about her sexuality.
Radhika Piramal, who married her partner in London in 2011, made the bold decision to talk about her sexuality at an event organized by Godrej India Culture Lab. Like Cook, Piramal was also extremely cautious about her private life, but feels publicly embracing her identity would help counter “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation” at home and the workplace for many LGBTQ persons in India.
While Tim Cook’s coming out was followed closely by the SCOTUS ruling in favour of marriage equality, its Indian counterpart has failed Radhika Piramal and other ‘out’ or closeted individuals by staying section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality. Which is why queer visibility in the Indian context becomes all the more important when challenging regressive and outmoded laws and attitudes that deny citizens a right to their own bodies and sexual expression. When a high-profile business-person like Piramal comes out, the first wall of silence is broken down. The blinders are removed. A conversation can begin – not just about LGBTQ sensitive company policies but also about demanding that the state uphold equal rights for every citizen.
For many in India, being closeted is akin to self-preservation. Without downplaying how difficult coming out must have been for both Pirmal and Cook, not everyone has the privileges they do. What’s important is that they’re using their privilege to talk about the existence and rights of people of alternate sexualities.
The dominant view of queer people typecasts them as sexual deviants, suffering some kind of mental and physical illness, and in dire need of medical intervention. But queer people have always been about more than their bodies, and the attempt to compress them into just their sexuality is a ridiculous one. Certainly, one has to be careful of falling into the trap of justifying queer existence only through their economic output and value, but seeing queer people in positions of authority and success can be extremely empowering for the community at large, which is essentially Cook’s earlier argument. One of America’s big radio satellite services was founded by Martine Rothblatt, America’s highest paid transgender CEO. Imagine what that can do for young trans teens’ confidence and self-acceptance!
In some ways, business is becoming the great leveller for many minority groups. Organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce is “expanding economic opportunities and advancements for LGBT people” in the US, something which could be excellent if it existed in South Asian countries.
At the same time, intolerant and downright hateful attitudes pollute all aspects of life, including commerce. An article by the BBC suggested that there are ‘commercial concerns’ for ‘out’ corporate figures, or corporations supportive of LGBTQ individuals. The anti-queer rage-fest that flared up when Oreo or Doritos so much as sported rainbow colours is indicative of how far behind the general populace of the world seems to be when it comes to equal rights. Given this attitude, having public figures like Piramal or Cook come out of the closet could be bad for business. But one likes to think that the world is moving towards a place of compassion and intelligence, and that the views of the small minded should no longer fetter us.
Radhika Piramal’s decision to declare her sexuality marks another important phase of India’s ongoing LGBTQ history. Her actions may give more people the strength to claim who they are, and, even better, more people the understanding to accept them as they are.