Apple's Tim Cook: 'So let me be clear: I'm proud to be gay'

Apple's CEO publicly discussed his sexual orientation for the first time in an effort to help anyone "struggling to come to terms with who he or she is."

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Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation for the first time, saying he wants to use his position as leader of one of the world's most valuable companies to bring attention to the discrimination minorities face.

"I'm proud to be gay. I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me," Cook said in an 800-word essay posted on Bloomberg Businessweek. "Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It's made me more empathetic."

Cook, who has been CEO of Apple for three years, described how he's been open about his sexuality with many people, but has tried to maintain some privacy on a wider public level. He quoted Martin Luther King in describing how he decided to balance his desire for privacy with his position as a role model, which gives him a platform to speak out on issues of discrimination.

"Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I'm gay, and it doesn't seem to make a difference in the way they treat me," Cook wrote. "Of course, I've had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people's differences. Not everyone is so lucky."

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Cook said he doesn't consider himself an activist, "but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others. So 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."

Despite never publicly acknowledging his sexuality before, Cook has for several years topped Out magazine's annual list of the most powerful and influential gay men and women in the US. He also has spoken and written in support of LGBTQ rights. A year ago, Cook wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, calling on the US Congress to pass a bill that aims to offer protection against workplace policies and practices that create disadvantages based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As recently as September, Cook tweeted in support of the Austin, Texas, pride parade celebrating gay rights. In his tweet, Cook gave "a shout-out to 3000 Apple employees and their families marching in the #AustinPride parade! Inclusion inspires innovation. #applepride." And while talking about Apple's diversity report in August (which showed most Apple employees are white men), Cook said Apple's "definition of diversity goes far beyond the traditional categories of race, gender and ethnicity."

"It includes personal qualities that usually go unmeasured, like sexual orientation, veteran status and disabilities," he said in the diversity report. "Who we are, where we come from, and what we've experienced influence the way we perceive issues and solve problems. We believe in celebrating that diversity and investing in it."

Cook on Thursday said being gay has been "tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It's also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you're the CEO of Apple."

The Alabama-born 53-year-old described himself as "an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things." He joined Apple in 1998 from IBM and temporarily took over from Steve Jobs as Apple's CEO in 2009. He was appointed to the position permanently in August 2011. Jobs died from cancer in October 2011.

In the video below, Cook meets Apple customers as the iPhone 6 goes on sale in September of this year:

Watch this: Line up for an iPhone 6, get a selfie with Tim Cook

Updated at 10 a.m. PT with additional background information.