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Thank you, Tim Cook

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Why we're not "moving on" from the Apple CEO's big statement today

In a way, what Tim Cook said today felt inevitable. At least since 2008, when Owen Thomas asked the question in Gawker, a steady accretion of reporting has suggested Apple’s chief executive is gay. By 2011, Cook’s sexual orientation was a matter of regular discussion in the media, with gay magazine Out putting him on the top of its gay power rankings. And since becoming Apple CEO, Cook has inched toward making a more public statement about his private life: making suggestive speeches about "human rights," for example, and leading Apple’s opposition to antigay legislation around the country.

And yet nothing could quite prepare for the shock of seeing the words in black and white. "I’m proud to be gay," the line in Bloomberg Businessweek declared, and reading the remarkable essay that followed, you believed him. "I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me," he wrote. Today, he shared that gift with the world.

"I'm proud to be gay."

As soon as the story hit the wires, Twitter erupted with cheers. But more or less immediately, various commentators sought out to change the subject. Marketwatch published a bizarre piece titled "14 facts about Tim Cook more interesting than his sexual orientation." The no. 1 fact is that "he’s fastidious," and the piece only gets more boring from there ("Cook is a cycling enthusiast").

On Twitter, dozens of people wondered why we couldn't all just "move on."

In other words: Now let us never speak of this again.

On the surface, tweets like these seem to reflect a lukewarm support for Cook. But they also betray a deep discomfort with the idea of gay people in public life, and even with sexuality itself. Three years ago, Felix Salmon addressed the question of why we don’t all just "move on" from Cook’s then-unacknowledged sexuality. "This is rarely accompanied by an elucidation of exactly what it is we’re meant to have moved on from," he wrote. "If it’s the kind of world where people are scared to come out at work, then, first, I’m sorry, but we haven’t."

The breathtaking spread of marriage equality this year has obscured the fact that for too many people, being gay is fraught with economic and personal peril. In 29 states, as Fortune noted, you can be fired for saying what Cook did today. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to the Trevor Project. It appears to be these facts, more than anything, that moved Cook to act. "If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy," he wrote.

And that’s the thing. It is one thing for the media to whisper to one another, or to post on their blogs, that the CEO of America’s most valuable company is a gay man. And it is a quite another for the man himself to step up to the microphone, with confidence and grace, and tell us himself. We knew Cook was gay; what we didn’t know is how he felt about it. Or, at a time when being gay is still very much a political act, what he planned to do with it.

Now we know.

We knew Cook was gay; what we didn’t know is how he felt about it

There was a time when I struggled to come to terms with myself; when I felt alone; when I scanned the horizon looking for someone to point the way forward for me. There was a time when the only other gay men I knew were the ones I saw in TV and movies, and they seemed nothing like me. It feels embarrassing to say now that what I wanted back then was a role model — someone confident in himself, powerful, a real leader — to give me permission to be myself. But I very much did.

And many still do, particularly younger people, and particularly younger people growing up in the more rural and religious parts of America. Someday, maybe someday soon, we’ll hear about how Cook’s essay today helped someone there through a difficult time. And then we’ll hear it again, and again, and again.

So "move on," if Cook’s essay today makes you so uncomfortable. Return to talking about his fastidiousness, or his supply-chain management, or whatever. But there’s no moving on for me, not today. This I’m going to savor.