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John Browne: Big Oil's Reluctant Gay Chieftan

At a time when work-place homophobia can seem almost anachronistically-esque, the case of John Browne reminds us that LGBTs remain corner-office rarities.
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In between battling to secure same-sex marriage rights and repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the American Gaystream somehow overlooked the arrival of Beyond Business, the new autobiography by former British Petroleum (BP) chief John Browne. The book, released in Britain in February, is essential reading for anyone -- homo or hetero -- with an ear for corporate finance, international intrigue, political celebrity and the type of career-ending sex scandals almost unimaginable in the 21st century.

Yet it was barely three years ago that Browne -- a 41-year BP veteran lauded by the Financial Times as "The Sun King"-- resigned after lying about a former male lover who threatened to expose their four-year relationship. Deeply closeted, Browne used his considerable industry influence to try and block Canadian Jeff Chevalier from revealing details of their dalliance in a Fleet Street expose. Initially insisting the pair met while jogging in London's popular Battersea Park, Browne's career was doomed when he ultimately admitted they actually hooked up via the far more salubrious Gay escort site, Suited and Booted.

Despite his Cambridge degree, a royal peerage, prime minister pals and billionaire business partners, Browne's demise was dishearteningly swift at BP -- a company whose market value quintupled during his 12 year reign as CEO. More than three years on, Browne is clearly still embittered about the entire experience -- despite the freedom it gave him to finally open his closet doors. "I had been found out; I panicked," he writes of Chevalier's revelations. "What was in my mind is hard to say; confusion, anger but most of all a sense of betrayal and affront."

Beyond Business' release comes at a precipitous moment for LGBTs over on this side of the Atlantic. On one hand, from Ellen Degeneres and Neil Patrick Harris to Johnny Weir and the kids on Glee, American pop culture has never skewed pinker. Meanwhile, LGBT civil rights struggles -- such as ending the ban on Gays in the military and approving ENDA -- are front-and-center on national political agendas.

Yet at the same time, corporate America's glass closet remains as suffocating today for many Gays as it was for Browne a generation ago -- despite dramatic improvements in both public and private workplace protections. Indeed, Browne's case exposes an often unspoken -- and uncomfortable -- contradiction in LGBT-land: While more Gay folks than ever populate America's mass-media arenas, "Some 51 percent of Gay people remain open to almost no one in their offices," says Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's leading LGBT political association. Even though "companies are taking stronger steps to make Gays and Lesbians feel welcome."

Propelling this dichotomy is a combative combination of Left Wing liberal optimism and Right Wing religious resistance. For even as progressives cultivate an atmosphere of openness and tolerance, many conservatives have yet to be swayed in their core opposition to homosexuality -- whether in the bedroom, boardroom or screening room. "It's a classic case of media acceptance before political acceptance and mainstream cultural acceptance," observes Joe Dolce, parter with PR firm DolceGoldin and former editor-in-chief of Details. "Sure, Ellen may have her own talk show, but that does not change the reality for someone like John Browne. People may wonder how a story like his could happen in 2007," Dolce adds. "But it could still happen today because for many people sexuality remains a very private issue."

Nearly one-half decade after resigning from BP, Browne is a far different man than during his DL days. He's happily partnered to a younger former investment banker, lives between posh pads in London and Venice and serves as Chairman of The Tate Museum. In fact, as Browne himself concedes, his story wraps up with an almost cliche-bordering Hollywood ending. "One the gifts of 2007 is that I can be very open," he told The Times of London. "Two parts of me have been joined together," he adds, "really for the first time."

After four decades deftly (if not maddeningly) segregating his public and private spheres -- not to mention 20 years living with his Auschwitz-survivor mother -- 61 year-old Browne has certainly earned his right to an autumnal happiness. Indeed, over the pages of Beyond Borders, Browne describes his 40-year pas de deux hovering at the fringes of the sexual liberation movement. Early on, we read of a 20-something Browne enjoying anxious excursions to a Beat-era Greenwich Village during his post-Stonewall BP posting in New York. Yet as his star rises, so too does his closet door close as Browne trades Manhattan-styled openness for the testosterone-fueled world of Russian oligarchs and South American oil fields.

There were certainly rendezvouses; not to mention occasional missteps, such as a Scottish oil industry event where he awkwardly bumped into anonymous trick. But mostly Browne perfected the fine art of don't talk/don't tell -- once even flatly denying his sexuality to a prying Financial Times writer. "It was obvious to me that it was simply unacceptable to be gay in business, and most definitely in the oil business," Browne recently told The Times of London. From a curious kid cruising Gotham Gay bars, BP turns Browne into the corner office equivalent of George Falconer, the closeted, 60s-era professor in Tom Ford's Oscar-nominated film A Single Man.

At a time when work-place homophobia can seem almost anachronistically Mad Men-esque, the cases of both Browne and Falconer are important reminders that out LGBTS -- as much as women or ethnic minorities -- remain corner-office rarities. Which is why the tragedy of Beyond Business is how much Browne was unable to reconcile his professional power with his personal desires during his tenure at BP.

Although Browne has clearly moved on to a happier and certainly healthier place, just as the arrival of an out super-star would help finally shatter the celluloid closet, so too would an out super-CEO embolden the current generation of Gay corporate climbers.

"One of the key causes (of office closetedness) is the lack of out Gay leaders helping to ensure people feel safe coming out at work," says HRC's Herrschaft.

Out Gay leaders like John Browne.