November 17, 2014 12:00 PM

When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that he was gay last week, he received a tremendous amount of attention, a lot of public support and very little backlash. But if you scrolled to the comments on online stories, you found a lot of remarks similar to this one from a People.com user: “Should I announce on the streets that I’m straight and happy to be married to a man? … That’s great. You’re gay. Who cares. Move along….” You hear that kind of thing a lot when a public figure announces he or she is gay. And no wonder: At a time when gay marriages are legal in 32 states, and some of the most popular celebrities in the world live as openly gay men and women, a lot of us—even gay people like myself—see sexual orientation as a nonissue. But in fact, it’s still a very big deal when someone like Cook says he’s gay. According to the U.N., homosexuality is banned in at least 77 countries, and in five of those it’s punishable by death. Even on these shores, Cook’s home state of Alabama is one of 29 states where people can be fired based on sexual orientation.

A few days before his announcement, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) issued a disturbing new National School Climate Survey. The report, which measures the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in middle and high schools, shows that 74 percent of these kids have been verbally harassed because of their sexuality during the past year; 36 percent were physically harassed. Those numbers aren’t as high as they used to be, but for many of these LGBT kids who feel alone and threatened, the role models they see from a distance—like Tim Cook or Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, profiled on page 54—remain their only means of support.

Cook’s public statement means they (and no doubt many adults in the fields of business and technology) can now feel inspired and empowered and less alone. That means more of them can dream of being the next Tim Cook. And that means the future, for all of us, just became a little brighter.

JESS CAGLE, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

Follow me on Twitter @MrJessCagle

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