Does a person’s sexuality matter when it comes to public interest?

Tim Cook’s ascension to the position of Apple CEO has raised considerable media interest, most notably in relation to his purported sexual orientation. Many have dubbed him ‘the most powerful gay man in the world’.

While a rather grand claim to make, critics have suggested that media obsession with his sexual orientation has erased reporting on the personal merit related to his success.

While this debate has varied historical and political dimensions, for the purposes of illustration, it is useful to summarise some of the competing views. On one hand, some argue that sexual orientation is an emotional or intimate attachment that should be entitled to privacy. At the same time, others argue that in a culture that assumes the heterosexuality of all people, if there are no ‘out’ powerful gay people, a failure to report diverse sexualities reinforces the idea that being queer and successful are not simultaneously possible.

Rather than subscribe to either view, perhaps our focus should be less on the sexual orientation of the individual in question, and more on the way we discuss sexuality (or other social differences) in the public space. Specifically, we must avoid causally connecting success or failure with a particular identity.

Putting debates on sexuality to one side, the association between wealth/corporate governance and power raises broader questions about how we measure personal triumph and success.

We must take care to avoid reproducing stereotypes of success and sexuality that limit it to corporate enterprise or consumer agency. Praise should be contingent on merit and personal circumstances — not homogenised in relation to one aspect of identity or another.

Tim Cook’s success or failure as a CEO is not confined to his romantic attachments or sexual practices. At the same time, however, we must recognise how his public persona signals the idea (among many others) that heterosexuality is not the only way of life that enables successful living.

That said, in making these representations, we must be cautious to avoid reinforcing the normative idea that economic entrepreneurialism is only what counts as success.

What this debate highlights is the need to be attentive to the way these media representations a/effect public debate and subsequently shape our dynamic projects for social change.


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