NEW YORK (AP) - Apple CEO Tim Cook's declaration that he's "proud to be gay" wasn't exactly news in Silicon Valley, where his sexual orientation was no secret. But advocates say that given Apple's immense reach and visibility, his coming-out could help change attitudes in workplaces across America.
The 53-year-old successor to Steve Jobs became the highest-profile U.S. business executive to publicly acknowledge that he's gay in an essay published Thursday by Bloomberg Businessweek.
In a country where more major-league athletes have come out than top CEOs, business leaders said Cook's disclosure was an important step toward easing anti-gay stigma, particularly for employees in the many states where people can still be fired for their sexual orientation.
Cook, who led Out magazine's top 50 most powerful people for three years, said in the essay that while he never denied his sexuality, he never openly acknowledged it, either. He said he acted now in the hopes that his words could make a difference to others.
"I've come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important," he wrote.
Cook said he considers being gay "among the greatest gifts God has given me" because it has given him both a better understanding of what it means to be in the minority and "the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you're the CEO of Apple."
The news did not shock the stock market, nor send much of a ripple through Silicon Valley.
Besides Cook, there are no other openly gay CEOs in the Fortune 1,000, even though statistically, 3.4 percent of Americans identify as something other than straight, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Some executives of major U.S. corporations who are openly gay at their companies declined to comment to The Associated Press.
John Browne, who resigned as British Petroleum CEO in 2007 after being outed by a tabloid and who is the author of "The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business," said Cook has become a role model "and will speed up changes in the corporate world."
Fifty-three percent of workers in the U.S. who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender hide that part of their identity at work, according to a study by Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group.
"I think it depends on where they're located, and it depends on their position in a company," said Wendy Patrick, a business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University.
She points out that executives in the 29 U.S. states that do not protect employees from being fired based on sexual orientation may still feel hesitant to come out at work.
Tim Cook - Apple CEO
Apple CEO publicly acknowledges that he's gay
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook gestures on stage during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. announced the new MacBook as well as more details on the much anticipated Apple Watch, the tech giant's entry into the rapidly growing wearable technology segment as well (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Apple interim CEO and Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook smiles before the start of the the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Monday, June 8, 2009. Cook is the interim CEO while Steve Jobs is out on leave. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
In this July 16, 2010 photo shows Apple's Tim Cook, left, and Steve Jobs, right, during a meeting at Apple in Cupertino, Calif. Cook takes over as CEO for Apple after Jobs resigned. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Apple CEO Tim Cook during announcement at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook stands in front of an MacBook on display after an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. announced the new MacBook as well as more details on the much anticipated Apple Watch, the tech giant's entry into the rapidly growing wearable technology segment as well (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Apple CEO Tim Cook smiles before speaking to graduates during George Washington University's commencement exercises on the National Mall, Sunday, May 17, 2015 in Washington. The university awarded Cook with an honorary doctorate of public service. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook waves from stage after an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. announced the new MacBook as well as more details on the much anticipated Apple Watch, the tech giant's entry into the rapidly growing wearable technology segment as well (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Apple CEO Tim Cook responds to a question during a news conference at IBM Watson headquarters, in New York, Thursday, April 30, 2015. Apple, IBM and Japanese insurance and bank holding company Japan Post have formed a partnership to improve the lives of elderly people in the country. The program will provide iPads with apps designed to help seniors manage day-to-day lives and keep in touch with family members. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Apple chief executive and Alabama native Tim Cook, right, and Catherine Randall pose with a plaque during an Alabama Academy of Honor ceremony at the state Capitol Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, in Montgomery, Ala. Cook and seven others, including Alabama football head coach Nick Saban, were inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new Apple iPad Air 2 during an event at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc., smiles as he visits the Apple Store during the launch and sale of the new iPhone 6 on Friday, Sept 19, 2014 Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc takes a photograph with Apple employees at the Apple Store during the launch and sale of the new iPhone 6 on Friday, Sept 19, 2014 Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses the new Apple Watch and iPhone 6 on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Apple's CEO Tim Cook gestures during a promotional event that marks the opening day of sales of China Mobile's 4G iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c at a shop of the world's largest mobile phone operator in Beijing, China, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event to announce new products in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
FILE- In this Wednesday, March 7, 2012, file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook announces a new iPad during an Apple announcement in San Francisco. Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to show off new iPhone software, updated Mac computers and provide more details on future releases of Mac software when he kicks off the company's annual conference for software developers on Monday, June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
FILE - In a Wednesday, March 7, 2012 file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook announces a new iPad during an Apple announcement in San Francisco. On Tuesday, April 10, 2012, Apple, already the world's most valuable company, hit the $600 billion level for the first time. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., right, waves to customers while leaving the sales launch for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus at the Apple Inc. store in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Apple Inc.'s stores attracted long lines of shoppers for the debut of the latest iPhones, indicating healthy demand for the bigger-screen smartphones. The larger iPhone 6 Plus is already selling out at some stores across the U.S. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., left, and the band U2 gesture during a product announcement at Flint Center in Cupertino, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Apple Inc. unveiled redesigned iPhones with bigger screens, overhauling its top-selling product in an event that gives the clearest sign yet of the company's product direction under Cook. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CUPERTINO, CA - OCTOBER 16: Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple special event on October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Apple unveiled the new iPad Air 2 tablet, iPad Mini 3 and a Retina iMac. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 02: Apple CEO Tim Cook walks off stage after speaking during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference at the Moscone West center on June 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Tim Cook kicked off the annual WWDC which is typically a showcase for upcoming updates to Apple hardware and software. The conference runs through June 6. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 17: (CHINA OUT) Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Apple Inc., visits a China Mobile shop to celebrate the launch of iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C on China Mobile's fourth generation (4G) network on January 17, 2014 in Beijing, China. Apple Inc. and China Mobile Limited, the world's largest carrier with over 760 million subscribers, signed a deal on December 23, 2013 after six years of negotiations. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., displays the iPad Air for a photograph during a press event at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. Apple Inc. introduced new iPads in time for holiday shoppers, as it battles to stay ahead of rivals in the increasingly crowded market for tablet computers. Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Cook's announcement "will save countless lives," said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign. "Apple has consistently fought for the LGBT community, and we're incredibly grateful that today's announcement will bring even more to their work for equality."
Three days ago, Cook challenged his home state of Alabama to better ensure the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Alabama is among the states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, and it offers no legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Cook is a native of Robertsdale, Alabama and attended Auburn University.
In Silicon Valley, there's less of a stigma than in other industries and parts of the country.
"It's an engineering-based industry," said author Michael Malone, who has written several books about the evolution of Hewlett-Packard, Intel and other leading companies. "Either the person does the job or they don't. And if they don't, they're gone. And if they do the job, nobody really cares about their personal life."
It remains to be seen how the news will affect Cook's reception in conservative countries where Apple Inc. does business.
"The global reaction to this is going to be very interesting," said Todd Sears, who runs Out Leadership, a group that promotes gay rights. "Will Singapore arrest Tim Cook the next time he is there?"
In Russia, Vitaly Milonov, a city legislator in St. Petersburg notorious for his anti-gay statements, called Thursday for a lifetime ban that would bar Tim Cook from entering Russia.
But Cook's coming out is unlikely to affect Apple's sales in Russia, where most people don't mix ideology with consumption.
The appeal of Apple's products and the company's clout probably made it easier for Cook to take a stand, said Richard Zweigenhaft, a Guilford College psychology professor who co-wrote the book "Diversity in the Power Elite."
"This is not going to help Apple, and it's not going to hurt Apple. It's almost sort of immune because their products are so successful," he said.
Cook's revelation has the potential to make people worldwide rethink their attitudes toward gays because Apple's products are beloved around the globe.
Said Sears: "It is going to be hard being a homophobe while holding an iPhone now."