‘You’re gay, so what? Get over it. Everyone else has.’ Wisdom according to James Delingpole, one of Britain’s most biting, baiting Right-wing writers.
Lord John Browne , 59, didn’t read him apparently. We know this because three weeks after his forced resignation as Chief Executive of BP, for lying to the High Court about where he met his gay partner to prevent the Right-wing Mail on Sunday publishing details of his relationship with now ex-boyfriend Jeff Chevalier, 27, he still has nothing to say on the matter.
Browne’s ostentatious foibles and lack of transparency throughout this saga have made his transition from the most gifted businessman of his generation nicknamed the Sun King to expendable consumer of escorts off a website called ‘Suited and Booted’ nearly complete.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
Browne has become an object of both ridicule and pity, but few have expressed any more positive emotions than that. It seems the public have become much more comfortable with Browne’s sexuality in a fortnight than he has in 59 years. Browne may have climbed the lower rungs of BP when homosexuality was still illegal, but his ex-boyfriend’s twenty- and thirty-something peers now have serious conversations about what their weddings to each other will be like. This is not an adjustment Browne found himself willing to make.
But he is not alone – a recent boss of mine was a closeted gay man of Browne’s vintage. He spoke of ‘how different it is for people your age.’ A generous person would also note that different industries attract different types of people. Browne made London’s ‘City’ district, the most competitive and profit-seeking of environments, his home. It is a place full of the kind of Right-wing or backstabbing people who are least likely to be sympathetic to gay men.
Yet the City is also the world’s oil, finance and insurance capital; here success is based on looking outward and taking risks. The City prizes leadership and rewards pioneers. It is not a place for wimps.
At it’s apex was a man who had been a pioneer in so many respects, but who in 40 years of opportunities to join and benefit from the various gay rights movements that have existed, conspicuously avoided doing so. In contrast, gay men in dozens of other spheres of life have understood the shared social need of lifting their status and most of them have, at one time or another, taken a personal responsibility for changing their situation.
It’s not even that anyone expected Browne to be a pioneer with his sexuality. He was far from being the only gay in the City. 2006 survey of gays and lesbians in the UK, which included the banking, finance and insurance industries of the London City, found that 55,000 of 900,000 people working in the industry were gay. If typical levels of self-underreporting were replicated in this report, that means between 70,000 and 80,000 gay men and women were working alongside shy Lord Browne.
Even if one accepts that being gay was really a threat to Browne’s position as CEO, one also needs to reflect upon how he failed those 55,000 other gays and lesbians in his immediate surrounds. His failure is a cause of indirect pain to his junior gay staff by allowing such an unforgiving culture to dominate BP, when others were fostering an opposite culture.
Companies like IBM, for instance. Like others making huge strides in bringing talented LGBT staff through their ranks, IBM begs for diverse workforces at recruitment fairs these days. I interviewed Larry Hirst, head of IBM UK, in 2005 and was stunned to have him lecture me on the faults and sub-clauses of UK laws dealing with transgendered individuals. Hirst was explicit, expert and serious when he said he wanted his people to be who they really were at work.
Lord Browne could have been giving that interview if he’d deployed his courage less selectively. Let us not forget the courage Browne displayed in claiming to run the ethical oil company while simultaneously dealing with such pathetic governments as Nigeria, which recently made it legal to stone gay men to death. It takes courage to stake an entire career on a lie to the High Court.
Another claim made of Browne is that he is ‘intensely private,’ if you believe the litany of friends backing him. But short of being a hermit – which, heading a AU$250 billion empire and having a habit of insisting on seat 1A in First Class when forced to resort to commercial air travel, he clearly is not – it is near impossible to hide information like the existence of partners from work colleagues. These basic facts do not fall into the category of private information. They are at the core of your being, they are about the person who should be called in an emergency and, if you are Lord Browne, the person you take to dinner with the Prime Minister.
Of course, no one ought to face belittlement or discrimination on the basis of presumed or open sexuality. But when closeted City workers face these quandaries in the future, they will find themselves at least partly to blame. The Browne case is the example which proves definitively that the overwhelmingly majority of us just don’t care if you are gay.
There was undoubted homophobia in some of the media coverage on Browne. But it is not the headlines such as ‘Fetish Petroleum’ that we will remember. We may continue to giggle at the idea of Lord Browne using his mother as a date to board level functions, but Browne was not forced out because of his sexuality. As his ex-boyfriend Chevalier said of ‘John’: ‘he must realise that being rich and powerful is no substitute for honesty.’
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