Chinese LGBT activism means more to many than Cook

Kathmandu (Pahichan) November 9 – Apple CEO Tim Cook’s coming-out announcement immediately became hot news when it was published on October 30 in Bloomberg Businessweek. But surprisingly, it seems to have caught even more attention in China than in the US.
Within 24 hours of the bold disclosure being posted online, I got several requests from editors of media outlets in China, asking me to comment on the news. While I was writing a piece for one of them, the editor called again and asked me whether I could adjust the angle because the piece we discussed a few hours ago had just been published on the website of a competitor. This was clearly major international news in China.

The attention feels a little overblown. Although Cook’s announcement drew thumbs-ups from bold names like former US president Bill Clinton and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, it surprised few who had any understanding of Cook or Apple.

Cook’s sexuality was an open secret in Apple, in Silicon Valley, and to many Apple fans. He was already named one of the 50 most powerful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the US in 2011. That was before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) meant same-sex marriage was recognized by the federal government.

Americans in the past couple of years have generally become much more accepting of gay people. Cook, although the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is in a sector that, unlike, say, sports, is not known for its hostility toward homosexuality.

Apple, in particular, already had gay man Ron Wayne as one of its founders. It was one of the several dozen big companies who issued statements in support of same-sex marriage last year. That pressure helped push the Supreme Court to rule it unconstitutional for the federal government to deny the benefits of marriage to married same-sex couples.

So Cook’s coming out was far less revolutionary than that of other high-profile celebrities like comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who suffered a blow to her career for a few years after coming out in 1997, or basketball player Jason Collins, who at the beginning of this year became the first openly gay player in a team in the National Basketball Association.

Still, as someone who is arguably the most influential CEO in the world, Cook’s confession will no doubt draw more attention to gay right issues, encourage more closeted LGBT people to come out and prompt the public to treat people in this community more equally.

In China, the news could be influential. China has a large population of LGBT people. But until 1997, homosexual activities were illegal in the country. For those who have come out and faced abuse or discrimination, or those who are too frightened to come out, Cook’s decision will certainly help make things better.

Of course, breaking down traditional barriers won’t be quick or easy.

But Chinese may not realize that their own progress on the issue is having an influence in the US.

After DOMA was declared unconstitutional in 2013, I interviewed some same-sex but mixed ethnicity couples. The findings were not a surprise. Asians are less willing to take advantage of the changes in the law to get married than their Caucasian partners because they are more hesitant about coming out to their parents. And when they do, their parents are less likely to attend the weddings.

Marsha Aizumi, a Japanese-American mother who became an activist after her son Aiden came out as a trans man, told me most Asian parents love their LGBT children as much as Caucasian parents. But the face issue is a big drag. Even the atmosphere in the US is friendlier, some parents worry their relatives in their home countries won’t approve. If people are more open in the home countries, it would be easier for immigrant parents to accept their LGBT children.

But Aizumi was invited last year to a parents’ conference held in Fuzhou, East China’s Fujian Province, by the China chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a worldwide support group. There she met 80 parents from around China and the leader of PFLAG China, an influential businessman and gay rights activist named Ah Qiang.

She was impressed by Chinese people’s interest in the achievements of the LGBT movement in the US and was also touched by the involvement of people like Ah Qiang.

Ah Qiang is no Tim Cook. But he has the passion, the power, and the will to make changes in China. In the eyes of Aizumi, his actions are just as important as the Apple CEO’s.

The author is a New York-based journalist. [email protected]