How Steve Jobs and the Invention of the Mac Saved My Life

11.21.2011

By Tom Rielly

Tom Rielly, founder of PlanetOut and the non-profit Digital Queers, explains how Steve Jobs inadvertently changed his life with the invention of the Mac.

Once I left Yale, I sold Macs for six months (easy) then went to Paris for six months, ending up writing for Infomag, a French Macintosh news magazine. When I returned to the states, I was invited by Apple to attend their sort of pre-Macworld Expo called AppleWorld conference to be held in San Francisco. This is where my eyes were really opened for the first time. At the event, I saw all these handsome gay men, guys who seemed to be so comfortable with themselves. I felt like I really belonged here in three senses of the word: in the Bay Area, in the Mac world, and in the gay community, a Venn diagram in which the three circles overlapped. On the spot I resolved to move out as soon as possible. (My joke is that I came out to Silicon Valley, both literally and figuratively.)

Since I hadn't finished college, I couldn’t work for Apple as they required a degree. So I joined a small startup, SuperMac, who sold the first fast hard drives for Mac Plus. (20 Mb only $1299!) At the same time, I worked up the nerve to move in with three out gay guys, who immediately took me under their wings (One, Marq, a brilliant computer scientist from Stanford, was another Apple Consortium baby. Another, Tom, who was a recovering alcoholic living with HIV, was my coming-out Yoda. Unfortunately he died just before AZT became available.) Though, except to a few, I was still in the closet at work, my career brought me face-to-face with all these gay and lesbian people in the Mac industry. I realized that I finally belonged. Slowly, between 1986 and 1988, I started coming out to family and friends. The hinges started to fall off the closet door: By 1988, I brought my boyfriend of the moment to wait outside during my final interview at my second job, Farallon, also a Mac company. (Networks! Audio into a Mac! Screen sharing!) Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to be out both personally and professionally.

Inspired by Queer Nation in 1990, I would go on to co-found Digital Queers—which helped to train the LGBT activist community about using technology and raised funds to buy computers (Macs!) and modern technology for gay and lesbian non-profits, like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, PFLAG, and GLSEN, among others. We raised the money at parties held in the evenings of the Macworld Expo, the massive trade show and annual meeting of the faithful. LGBT Apple employees were among the first trainers and donors. Later, I created PlanetOut, which provided an online community for LGBT folks, with community, news, entertainment, sports, travel, and more. The company proved (much like Out magazine) that a gay corporation (run on Macs) could attract venture capital, corporate investment, mainstream advertisers, and millions of members. But that was not why I started it. Though this might sound mawkish or overly earnest, I wanted to help teens who were like me way back in high school.

There are so many parallels and links between the Mac and gay communities. The Mac world was one of creativity, ideas, and energy. Most of the world used a PC, with just a small amount of Mac users (at the time, almost exactly like the ratio of straight to LGBT people). Mac users often faced mockery, harassment, and other forms of opposition just to use a Mac in their place of business. (Seriously.) Back then, we found surprising statistics showing that gay and lesbian people were up to three times more likely to own a Mac than a PC. And I promised you, back then (and now) there was a higher percentage of LGBT people working in the Mac industry than in others. Hey, and we care about design.

Apple was also an early and consistent leader in gay and lesbian rights. They had an equal opportunity policy from very early on, and one of the first companies to have domestic partnership benefits (engineered by Elizabeth Birch, former HRC executive director, but then an Apple litigator). More recently they became one of the very the first companies to have a trans-friendly anti-discrimination policy. Apple was the bellwether. What Apple did employee policy-wise, other Silicon Valley would inexorably follow. Apple was the bellwether. Queer Apple employees, led by Bennet Marks, founded Apple Lamdba, an officially sanctioned group that helped bring the trans protection among dozens of other accomplishments. Apple also donated $100,000 very publicly to defeat Proposition 8 in California. And I know have it on good authority that as a person, Steve was a great friend to the community, both on principle and, more importantly, to the gay people in his life.

This journey, of course, never would have happened without Steve Jobs and the Mac and everything that came after (the World Wide Web was built on a Next machine, also a Steve creation). Because of his inspiration, his passion, and his energy for not only the products and his team at Apple, but for the community he inspired around them, I really and truly believe that he and the Mac saved my life, and, at a minimum, gave me purpose, meaning, and belonging. Though I only met Steve a handful of times, I felt and still feel a strong personal connection to him that, I'm aware, defies reason. When I found out he died, I felt physically ill and, of course, sad for him, his family, his friends, and his co-workers. I also feel sad that the world that will not benefit from 20 more years of his brain.

If you’ve been reading other Steve remembrances over the past days you know my story is not unique—it’s just one of millions of such stories of the people he touched, and at least some of those yet to be told may have a LGBT twist.

The Compuserve system operator I emailed from my Mac computer at Yale turned out to be Deacon McCubbin, the founder of Lambda Rising bookstore in D.C., the largest LGBT bookstore in the country. In 1996, I was able to go to his bookstore and thank him in person and, later, in print for what he did for me way back in 1984. Thought I can't tell you in person, thank you, Steve. I will forever be grateful, and you will always be my hero.

Rielly is Community Director for TED Conferences. He still reads the Mac blogs daily.

If you have a similar story and would like to share, we’d love to hear it. Email us at [email protected].

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