All Articles Leadership Careers Former BP CEO John Browne on coming out in business

Former BP CEO John Browne on coming out in business

5 min read


This post is excerpted from “The Glass Closet” (HarperBusiness, June 2014) by John Browne. Visit The Glass Closet website and follow @glassclosetorg on Twitter.

It was time to leave the building.

At 5 p.m. on May 1, 2007, a few hours after resigning as chief executive of BP, I stepped into the elevator on the fifth floor of the London headquarters and began my descent. When the doors opened, I had two options. I could make my way to an underground garage without being noticed and escape by car. Or I could walk out the main entrance, where about 30 press photographers had spent the day waiting.

My overwhelming desire to conceal my sexual orientation over the course of four decades in the oil industry had culminated in this terrible juncture. My long-kept secret was about to be exposed, and I was not going to hide any longer. I decided to leave through the front door.

At around 10 that morning, reporting restrictions under a High Court injunction issued four months earlier had been lifted. Associated Newspapers (publisher of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard) would now be able to disclose details of my three-year relationship with a young Canadian named Jeff Chevalier. In 2003, I had met Jeff, a 23-year-old male escort, on a now-defunct website. As a businessman in the public eye, I was too frightened to go out to a club or find a date because of the risk of being discovered. After nine months, Jeff moved in with me, but our relationship eventually fell apart.

On Jan. 5, 2007, I was on vacation when the Mail on Sunday telephoned the BP press office. They said they intended to publish a story including details about my private life with Jeff. I quickly decided to hire a top London law firm and to seek an injunction to block publication of the story.

I was 59 years old, and I had not discussed my sexual orientation with most of those closest to me. Yet I suddenly found myself explaining my situation to an unknown lawyer on my mobile phone. We had never met, but in a state of anxiety and stress, I was being asked to share with him the most intimate details of my secret life. Perhaps that is why I decided not to tell the whole truth. When he asked how I had first come into contact with Jeff, I said that we had met running in Battersea Park.

On Jan. 6, the High Court issued the injunction blocking publication of the story. I felt a great relief, but I knew that the newspaper would work doggedly to have the injunction lifted. I also knew that my witness statement contained an important fabrication.

The next day I made up my mind that I could not continue as chief executive of BP. The brewing storm around my personal life had the potential to destroy my reputation, and I didn’t want it to hurt the company. On Jan. 8, I went to see the chairman of the board, Peter Sutherland. I explained to him as much as I could without compromising the injunction, as instructed by my lawyers. I said that I wanted to resign immediately. The board decided that I would stay on until the end of July.

By Jan. 20, I had corrected my witness statement and apologized to the High Court, but I knew in my heart that it would make no difference. The next four months were torture, waiting for the injunction to be lifted. That moment came on May 1. By noon, I had announced my resignation from BP.

Looking back, most of my fears about coming out were clearly unfounded. After I resigned, thousands of supportive letters poured in from around the world. I also underestimated both the capacity of my friends and colleagues to accept all of me and the extent to which people already knew, or suspected, that I was gay. Since then, I have remained active in the energy business, chaired the board of the Tate galleries, advised my fifth prime minister and built a wonderful relationship with another man. Had I known then what I know now, I would have come out sooner.

Since my outing in 2007, many societies around the world have done more to embrace people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But the business world has a long way to go. Supportive policies, LGBT resource groups and other signals of inclusion are necessary to foster an environment in which people feel safe to come out. They are an essential part of the solution, but the ultimate responsibility for change rests with LGBT employees themselves. As more people come out and continue to experience professional success, it will be easier for others to do the same.

Coming out can be terrifying. But as someone who came out in a very public way, I can say that it forces you to be honest, transparent and brave. The risk is worth the reward.