I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.
So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.
I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.
So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me. But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.
Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.
I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!