John Browne resigned as CEO of oil giant BP in 2007 after being outed as a gay man in a British tabloid. At the time, he was the first CEO of a major publicly traded company to publicly acknowledge he was gay.
Seven years later, the Lord Browne of Madingley wrote about the double life he and others led as closeted gay executives in "The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business."
"I realized a great weight had gone off my mind," he said in an interview with USA TODAY. "I mean, I could actually be myself consistently between my corporate life and my private life, and not be worried."
Today, he's frustrated that – despite legal reforms and civil rights advances – progress for LGBTQ people in corporate America has been halting, especially in the corner offices and the boardrooms of the largest publicly traded companies.
Openly gay in the boardroom: Why so few LGBTQ executives lead America's largest companies
Few companies encourage self-reporting or track LGBTQ representation at the board level. And, despite the flashy rainbow-colored celebrations companies put on each year during Pride Month, there are few openly LGBTQ leaders – and even fewer LGBTQ people of color – serving on corporate boards, according to a USA TODAY analysis of information collected by data firm DiversIQ.
While all the companies in the S&P 500 disclose at least some racial, ethnic or gender data about board members, just 128 disclose whether they have directors who identify as LGBTQ, the analysis found.
In the Fortune 500, there are but a handful of openly gay CEOs and, according to Out Leadership, 26 board seats are held by openly gay directors.
"A vanishingly small percentage. Less than half a percent of all the board seats," Browne said. "It’s therefore inconceivable that it's a full representation of LGBTQ people."
In a wide-ranging interview, Browne discussed his experiences rising in the corporate world as the United Kingdom and United States were beginning to grant LGBTQ people legal protections, the cultural changes in business he’s seen since then, and the work that remains for companies to fulfill pledges to become truly inclusive.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Why this ex-BP CEO concealed his identity
Browne: My dear late mother was a Holocaust survivor. She said to me, always, never ever be an identifiable member of a minority because, when the going gets tough, when things get bad, the majority always hurts the minority. So, I promptly decided I'd go straight in the closet and throw the key away. And that's where I stayed.
I ran two lives. I ran a life where I didn't tell anyone about what I did in my private life. And I had a deep underground life where I slowly tried to meet people and do things in the gay scene. I was terrified that anyone would identify who I was.
I realized very quickly that more people knew who I was than I knew who they were. My profile rose and rose and rose. And so, by the mid '90s, I went even deeper underground. I began to have a few escorts. And then one thing led to another and I built a relationship with someone who had been an escort. That didn't work out well. He left.
How being outed changed his life, career
Browne: One day in 2007 the press office of BP got a call: "Here's 35 questions we’d like you to answer." I tried to shut it down. And in shutting it down, I was asked a very simple question: How did you meet him? I didn't tell the truth. I was the subject of huge headlines everywhere. I resigned from BP.
Then I realized something: I had spent my life hiding a secret because I thought people would think less of me if they knew who I was. That I wouldn't be able to do business, that they wouldn't take me seriously. In my past, the number of anti-gay jokes and all that kind of stuff – "Well, you know he's a homosexual, so he's not reliable" – just conditioned me to believe that if someone knew, my world would fall apart. And, actually, when they did know, it didn't fall apart.
Why it's still not always safe to be openly gay at work
Browne: It would be very easy to make a very simple statement: If you’re gay, come out. I think that would be unwise. If it’s a global statement, you have to say: If it's safe for your personal life, come out. But if it's safe.
Because I see little point in encouraging people to come out in a country, maybe in Uganda or somewhere, where they come out inside the four walls of an enlightened company only to go outside and get beaten up. I think you have to be very careful.
Learning to detect danger at work
Browne: I was of a different generation. I just decided to kind of suppress who I was. It's not a skill I'd recommend for anybody, but I got very good at it.
I got very good at being who I wanted to project, and I got very good at sensing danger and reading people. If there was a business skill I regrettably honed, it was to read danger. I could read people fairly quickly and whether they were going to make fun of me, belittle me and hurt me.
I once went to the office dressed – this was a long time ago now – dressed with a striped shirt. And my boss said to me, "Oh, so you haven't bothered to take your pajamas off then." I was so worried that he actually meant something else, I never wore striped shirts ever again.
Why business works best when it’s inclusive
Browne: I always like to think a business is best characterized as a great team of people, all of whom are committed to a single purpose, all of whom share values, and all of whom believe that they are supported and part of the team.
So the moment you break that, when people feel excluded, everyone begins to feel excluded because they say, well, it could be me. I may not be part of the inner club. And so what happens is they get preoccupied with it. It takes more space in their minds and they don’t perform as well.
Why companies should publish LGBTQ data
Browne: Data tells you something. It tells you about whether you’re doing the right thing, where you concentrate, where you don’t concentrate.
Any great CEO inside a company would not like someone hiding bad financial information. Quite the reverse. They want clarity, they want openness, they want transparency. So, this is just the same thing. When data shows you are not doing well, it is always the platform to do better.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Outed BP CEO John Browne on why LGBTQ executives hold few board seats