Leadership & Management

Former BP CEO John Browne: Why Coming Out is Good Business

In an excerpt from his new book, a former oil executive explains why he kept his gay identity a secret for decades.

September 24, 2014

| by John Browne



John Browne in 2010 | Reuters/Paul Hackett

At 5 p.m., on May 1, 2007, just a few hours after resigning as chief executive of BP, I stepped into the elevator on the 5th floor of the London headquarters and began my descent. When the doors opened I had two options. I could make my way to an underground parking garage without being noticed. Alternatively, I could simply walk through the lobby and out of the main entrance overlooking leafy St. James’s Square, where about 30 press photographers had spent the day waiting like vultures for their prey.

My overwhelming desire to conceal my sexual orientation over four decades in the oil industry had culminated in this terrible juncture. My long-kept secret was about to be exposed, and I was not going to hide any longer. I decided I would leave through the front door.

Protecting a Secret to Save a Career

In 1969 I accepted a job with BP. I wanted to go to the United States, and BP decided to send me to Alaska. It was not what I had in mind. But I accepted the offer and started my career in the frozen tundra, above the Arctic Circle, 650 miles north of Anchorage. I learned my trade as a petroleum engineer as part of a team that drilled exploration wells. I was the lowest of the low. Over time my responsibilities grew as I was promoted through various jobs in New York, San Francisco, London, and Calgary.

As my career progressed and my hours became longer, I channeled any personal frustration about my identity into my work. I saw absolutely no purpose being served by coming out. My career was going in the right direction and the line between my private and public lives was clear.

By 1981 I had been with BP for 12 years. I was 33 years old when I moved to Aberdeen, the Scottish city known for its granite buildings and extraordinarily rare beautiful summer days. I had been appointed manager of Forties Field, the largest oil field in the North Sea and one of BP’s most important production assets. Twice a month I spent my weekends on our massive offshore platforms. Staff jokingly referred to the dozen platform managers as the “college of cardinals” and to me as the “pope.”

One weekend evening when I was onshore I went into the only gay club in town. I had been to gay venues elsewhere, but this was my first time in Aberdeen. I was absolutely terrified, but I had calculated that the risk of seeing anyone from BP was slim to none. I met someone, and we went home together. We did not reveal much personal information about ourselves, but he was clearly an educated professional of some kind.

Two days later I was in the office and I saw him walking toward me in a corridor. In a split second I could feel my temperature rise and scanned the area to make sure no one else could see whatever reaction I was about to have. I had hundreds of people working for me at that point. How many of them would now
 joke that the pope had sinned?


As my career progressed and my hours became longer, I channeled any personal frustration about my identity into my work. I saw absolutely no purpose being served by coming out.

It was a fleeting moment of monumental internal crisis, but it passed without incident. As it turned out, the man I had met worked for another division of the company. It was obvious that he was in the same situation as I was. Later, on the rare occasions we spotted each other, we acted as complete strangers. It was naïve of me to think that I was the only one trying to keep a secret. Pursuing a long-term relationship never crossed my mind. The practical barriers were simply too high. The corporate ladder is slippery enough on its own. Why complicate your ascent by throwing oil on the rungs? By 1981, the AIDS epidemic was fueling homophobia across the world, bringing with it another reason to suppress any thoughts of a homosexual relationship.

My paranoia went up in 1995 after I became chief executive. When I was traveling abroad, I was often a government guest and there were security people around. After BP acquired Amoco in 1998, my profile grew in the United States, so I also had personal security there around the clock. Security personnel would stay in rooms adjacent to mine, and the moment the door opened they would be awakened. The closet door was now nailed shut.

My fear of being discovered arose from my belief that I could not do business as an openly gay person in a country that criminalized homosexuality. This was true in places as far apart as the Middle East, Angola, and Nigeria. I viewed being in the closet as a practical business decision.

From 1995 to 2005, I served as a trustee of the British Museum. The keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities unveiled a piece of silverwork depicting two male lovers. I wanted to sink into the ground. It was thought to have been made about 2,000 years ago, and was said to have been unearthed near Jerusalem. It was a truly enticing masterpiece with an extraordinary history. Yet I could not bring myself to speak in favor of the museum purchasing the object because of its homosexual imagery. I thought that praising the work would be tantamount to coming out of the closet.

In 2013, I was having lunch with the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom in his residence. My long-standing business acquaintance, Russia’s former energy minister Yuri Shafranik, was the guest of honor. The ambassador recounted in vivid detail how, in 1989, I had met Shafranik when I was leading BP’s exploration and production division. “We treated you very well at the time because our intelligence showed that you were going to be the next CEO of BP,” he said. “Our agents picked that up.” I wondered what else was in their files.

Others Had to Tread Carefully

For decades I believed that it would be socially unacceptable to come out. I worried that the negative stereotype of a gay person would overshadow the reality of who I am. I am sure that staying in the closet did prevent some people from forming unflattering opinions about me. However, I am no longer 
convinced that they matter.

By avoiding one stereotype I conformed to another: that of a gay man in the closet. I had a dominant mother and a high-powered job. I associated almost exclusively with straight people, and I worked more than I lived. Every moment of my day was scheduled, often months in advance. Observant people, and there are many at BP, would have seen me for what I was: a gay man too fearful to come out, a man who poured himself into work to escape personal frustration and loneliness. In retrospect, I know that the people who do matter to me did not care whether I was gay. But they felt for me for carrying such a heavy burden, even if they did not always know precisely what it was.

During a recent business trip to San Francisco, I spoke with Gini Savage, a long-standing friend who sensed my inner turmoil decades ago. “You were an incredibly reserved person,” she remembers. “No one knew where they could put a foot down with you because you were very private.” She and others had to tread carefully. We danced around the subject of my sexual orientation without ever confronting it. It was tiring, and not just for me.

As chief executive of BP there was so much to do. But you can only divert the tension and anxiety for so long. Toward the end of my 
tenure I felt those negative feelings turning back on me. Had I stayed in the closet I think I would have remained an incomplete and unfulfilled person. Since coming out, my friendships, both old and new, have flourished. And so has the relationship with my partner who I respect and admire.

Coming out does not mean your life will be peace and serenity. You will still encounter people who make you uncomfortable. You will still have to make difficult decisions. However, as I have learned since coming out, you will be better able to 
cope with all of them.

Are Workplaces Becoming More LGBT Friendly?

More than 90% of Fortune 500 companies have policies that are designed to prevent discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation. In spite of the progress, it is estimated that 41% of LGBT employees in the United States remain in the closet at work, as do 34% of their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

These closeted employees certainly lack role models: At the end of 2013, there was no openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500. I do not think that is due to a dearth of talent among gay executives. Rather, the lack of representation in the upper echelons of business seems to stem from the issue of self-selection and inclusion. Anxiety still grips LGBT employees from the factory floor all the way to the chief executive’s office.

The paranoia is present even among employees who work at firms known for embracing LGBT inclusion.

At one of them, every year, employees must submit a list of people who are able to assess their performance. At the same time, managers seek unsolicited comments from employees who are not named on the list, which is common practice at large banks. The results of these reviews determine how much employees are paid, whether they will be promoted, and essentially their long-term viability in the firm.

“While you think there is a 99% chance coming out will be fine, the consequences of that 1% are terrifying,” says George, an investment banker for the firm.

Among headhunters, there is debate about whether the situation is actually improving. Anna Mann, a headhunter of choice for board appointments to many FTSE 100 companies, says that sexual orientation is not a consideration during the selection process. “I have never come across any form of prejudice against gay people at board level,” she says. However, another distinguished headhunter, who wishes to remain anonymous, sees plenty of scope for prejudice. “The point of recruiting people to boards is people want kindred spirits,” she says. “That may well exclude people who are not identical to people who are recruiting them.”

This is not proof of discrimination; the reality is much more complex. Corporate boards are the product of established social and professional networks, and are tasked with the stewardship of a company. It is therefore unsurprising that they tend to be conservative and risk averse, and that they have behaved in ways that reinforce the division between insiders and outsiders.

For example, I have seen male directors attempt to close deals or argue a point while standing at a urinal, thereby excluding female members of the board. I believe that for executives making high-level decisions, homosexuality might raise a conscious and unconscious red flag, since someone who does not fit the board’s mold brings with them risk and uncertainty. This may explain why, at the end of 2013, there were no openly gay executives among FTSE 100 corporations. (Since then, one board has appointed an openly gay chief executive. Christopher Bailey took up the position at Burberry in May 2014.) If we were to assume that 5% of the population is gay, there should be five gay chief executives among FTSE 100 companies, and some 25 in the Fortune 500.

The Business Argument for Diversity

In 2008, the Campbell Soup Company hoped to target the LGBT population by placing an advertisement in The Advocate, the highest circulation gay magazine in the United States. First printed in December of that year, the advertisement featured a lesbian couple and their son preparing dinner with Swanson Chicken Broth, one of Campbell’s products. The right-wing American Family Association, an organization that promotes fundamentalist Christian 
values, objected strongly. The group contacted its list of more than three million email subscribers to ask them to write to Campbell’s CEO to express their outrage. “Campbell Soup Company has openly begun helping homosexual activists push their agenda,” the message read.

Douglas Conant, the company’s CEO at the time, sought the view of Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale, his chief diversity officer. She recalls giving him two pieces of advice. “The first,” she remembers, was “‘know that this too shall pass. It’s a two- to four-week issue, and at the end of that they will go on to annoy someone else. Ride it out.”

Her second point emphasized the business case for placing the advertisement in the first place. “We advertise in The Advocate because we sell soup to gay people, and we want LGBT people to buy soup and crackers and all of our other products. Explain to them that we advertise in Hispanic and Latino publications, in African American publications, and in women’s publications. It’s
 about advertising in publications where our consumers are.” The company stood by its action, thousands of consumers wrote in to thank them, and the protest eventually stopped.

A marketing strategy aimed at a diverse population is essential for any business: In order to grow it needs to reach as many new consumers as it can. The LGBT population, traditionally under-served by marketers, presents a meaningful and often sizeable opportunity. Discretionary spending by gay men and lesbians is growing. The overall buying power of the LGBT market in the United States is estimated to have reached roughly $830 billion in 2013, up from $743 billion 
in 2010. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that the gay market is worth at least $90.4 billion (£70 
billion). Allan Gilmour, the former chief financial officer at Ford Motor Company, has famously described his company’s marketing push to gay people in these terms: “I know a lot of lesbians and gay men buy automobiles. I just want my unfair share.”

Buying a billboard and plastering it with images of apparently gay men will not make a lasting impact. The gay consumer is increasingly wary of gimmicks, and instead seeks a sustained, sincere commitment to LGBT issues. That is one reason why the Human Rights Campaign launched its popular “Buying for Workplace Equality Guide” in 2006, which scores companies on, among other issues, its policies toward LGBT employees. “We get letters all the time from people letting us know how they use the Buyer’s Guide to make their own purchasing decisions,” says Deena Fidas, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program.

However, positive stories and encouraging examples are not enough. All those concerned with change must emphasize the business case for diversity. Relating LGBT diversity and inclusion to economic gain is ultimately the biggest driver of change.

Excerpted from The Glass Closet by John Browne, published by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. John Browne, knighted in 1998, was a Sloan Fellow at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1981 and CEO of BP from 1995 - 2007. Currently, he is a managing partner and managing director at Riverstone Holdings LLC.

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