April 29, 1997
Profile of Allan Gilmour
By STEVE FRIESS
A few months before he retired, Allan D. Gilmour
sat in his executive office at Ford Motor Co. tending to the
matters that keep billion-dollar corporations profitable. His
long-time secretary interrupted his concentration on the speaker
phone to inform him an Eric Jirgens was on the line. Put him
through, her boss instructed.
"Really?" she answered with surprise. The young,
unfamiliar voice hardly seemed the type to be "put through"
without question to the vice chairman of the nation's second-largest
car company. Still she obeyed, and Gilmour - 62-year-old financial
whiz and 34-year resident of the corporate closet - took a call
at his desk from his boyfriend for the first time in his life.
Gilmour didn't see the moment as a turning point
then. But it was one step in a remarkable transition from a
button-down suit prudently tidy about his limited gay life to
the guy who, months later, wore shorts for the first time in
decades as he lay on a Florida beach with his lover.
The metamorphosis actually began in July 1992
when Gilmour lost his bid to become Ford chairman. After more
than three decades devoted to a company that made him rich and
influential, Gilmour was nudged aside by another Ford veteran,
Alex Trotman. Gilmour held no grudge, but he also realized he'd
peaked at Ford. He retired in December 1994.
Whether persistent rumors of Gilmour's sexuality
doomed his chance to be chairman remains unclear. Gilmour acknowledges
that many suspected he was gay, but he doubts it mattered to
the selection committee. In fact, he became vice chairman after
losing the chairmanship, more evidence his sexuality was irrelevant.
"I think the answer is no, it had nothing to do with the decision.
Do I know that? No."
He's fairly certain, however, that he may never
have come out of the closet if he'd assumed Ford's top spot.
"I wanted to be more involved in the gay world on the charity
side and with the issues of the day and, if possible, have a
relationship," says Gilmour, a rouge-faced man with a Donahue-like
head of silver hair. His distinctive nasal drawl evokes images
of a kinder, possibly even British, Darth Vader. "The only way
in my view was to retire. I'm delighted I did it."
He did more than that. In December he acknowledged
his sexuality in an interview with the gay Michigan monthly
Between The Lines. The revelation, from one of the highest ranking
company leader ever to come out, focused the national media
spotlight on homosexuality as a thorny, largely discomfiting
matter for corporate America.
Gilmour's action was especially significant
because he came from the auto business, an industry notably
stodgy on gay workplace issues. The Big Three motor companies
all have nondiscrimination clauses including sexual orientation,
though that only happened in the past year when the unions demanded
it. None offers domestic partnership benefits. "These companies
have their heads in the sand in such a big way, they're more
avoiding it than being conservative about it," says diversity
training consultant Liz Winfeld.
Gilmour grew up on a Vermont dairy farm and
joined Ford as a financial analyst in 1960 with degrees from
Harvard and the University of Michigan. He long believed his
disinterest in women would change but, by the early 1970s, he
quietly accepted he was different. "It gradually came over me.
And no, I wasn't scared or upset or anything else. I thought,
‘This is fact.' As a business person, you're supposed to rely
on fact rather than emotion."
Gilmour never forced himself into relationships
with women or kept up appearances by attending social functions
with dates. Nor did he entertain the prospects of a serious
relationship with a man. "I perceived the risk of coming out
in the business world as fairly substantial," he says. "Not
that I was going to be fired, but you didn't know what was going
to happen. Ford over the years treated its people very well,
but I had the concern that it might affect my upward mobility."
At the same time, he's protective of Ford's image and says in
his three decades there, he heard fewer than a dozen homophobic
For the past 22 of those years, Gilmour lived
less than a mile from Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.
His home, modest by a millionaire's standards, is a three-bedroom
townhouse sparsely decorated but littered with the various crystals
and engraved coasters that leaders of Fortune 500 companies
collect in a career. Gilmour's study, his most lived-in room,
is found immediately to the left of the front door and boasts
a full wall of books on finance and politics. It's easy to imagine
Gilmour, on rare evenings when he wasn't globe trotting for
business, walking into the empty house after sunset, flipping
on the office lamp and reading a few quarterly reports before
climbing the stairs en route to his seven hours of rest.
Yet while Gilmour was lonesome, he did partake
in gay life by reading anything he could find on homosexuality
and milling around in bars trying desperately to avoid being
recognized by anyone he knew. "I remember one Ford colleague
coming up and saying to me, ‘Oh my God, it'll ruin my career.'
And I said, ‘I'm more worried about mine.' It was always worrisome.
He soon realized his rising prominence at Ford
meant more co-workers knew him, so he stayed home rather than
risk being spotted. At work it seemed easy to avoid talk of
his personal life because, he says, nobody talked about theirs
either. Press biographies usually dismissed Gilmour as a "lifelong
bachelor," and when asked to be more specific he rebuffed the
intrusion. Gilmour explains: "I never said to anybody working
for me, ‘What's your religion? Have you paid your taxes on time?
Are there any arrest warrants out for you?' And they left me
On the road, though, he indulged himself, one
time making the three-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco
"to see what it was all about there." The next morning, as Gilmour
prepared to head back to Tahoe for that day's business meeting
there, he happened upon set-up for that year's Gay Pride parade.
"I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, these are interesting people.
I bet it would be a whole lot more fun to stay here for the
For a man who spent a career wondering what
kind of fireworks might explode if he came out, Gilmour still
insists he wasn't prepared for the national attention December's
Between the Lines piece sparked. His Ford career was two years
behind him and he'd become openly active in gay charities in
Detroit. Although he remained on the corporate boards of Prudential
Insurance, Dow Chemical, Detroit Edison, US West and Whirlpool
Corp., he assumed his profile was low enough to bypass the media's
"I'm surprised he's surprised because he's a
very sophisticated guy," says Detroit News business columnist
Jon Pepper. "He had the No. 2 position in one of the largest
corporations in the world. He must have had some sense it would
be front-page news."
Even more stunning to Gilmour was the uniformly
positive reaction. In January he attended both the Detroit Auto
Show, where he encountered several straight friends, and Gay
Ski Week in Aspen, where he chatted with U.S. Rep. Barney Frank
and others. "There's been no negative reaction," Gilmour says.
"Most people congratulate me. Some people don't say anything
at all, and that's very hard to read."
After the story broke, Gilmour called the chairmen
of each of the five boards. "One of my concerns was that I would
be a marginalized member of boards of directors. I was told
uniformly it makes no difference. I loved talking to Frank Popoff,
the chairman of Dow Chemical. I said, ‘I'm calling about my
recent publicity.' And he said, ‘This call isn't necessary.'
I said, ‘Well if it backfires, let me know.' He said, ‘No, I'll
take care of them.' " Echoes Dow board member Jacqueline Barton:
"He's an outstanding member of the board, and it's just irrelevant."
And a Ford spokeswoman
said the company won't comment on Gilmour's
coming out except to say he remains a respected figure in the
Gay employees at Gilmour's companies hope to
parlay that response into greater acceptance of their issues.
"We're hopeful when anybody at that level comes out," says John
Trautman, president of US West's gay employees group. "There
aren't a lot of upper-level managers who are out and outspoken.
Someone like Allan Gilmour speaks with a different level of
credibility." And Ford gay employee group Alice McKeage is also
pleased, though she realizes there are limits to how much Gilmour
can help. "I'm real proud of him, but down in the blue-collar
plant atmosphere, we still have people who think it's perfectly
OK to harass people. People in the plant are not going to come
out because Allan Gilmour did."
These groups may have to continue their fights
without Gilmour on the front lines. He eschews the role of advocate,
offering himself up instead as a "resource" on gay
matters to both the corporate boards and the employee groups.
The role of corporate boards, he insists, is merely to oversee
the financial direction of the company, not to meddle in specific
He also asserts private enterprises are not
agents of social change for minorities. Corporations should
only offer gay-positive policies, Gilmour believes, if they
are convinced it's good business: "Corporations are going to
do this not because it's the right thing but because it's in
their self-interest. They want good employees who feel well-treated
because they bring brain power and productivity to work."
Who, then, is responsible for social change?
Gilmour, a lifelong Republican and conservative, offers this
surprise: "I would rely more on government than on individual
corporations." Gilmour applauds the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
for barring the city from doing business with companies that
don't offer domestic partnership benefits. "It's a legitimate
action to take," he says. "In general, whether it's emission
standards for cars or gay rights, government sets the rules."
Gilmour has inched toward the political left
since he came out, mostly under the influence of lover Eric
Jirgens, a 34-year-old interior designer who had a thriving
practice prior to meeting Gilmour at a dinner party in 1994.
Since then, Jirgens has brought a younger, more modern perspective
to the staid auto executive's world, giving Gilmour more comfort
to discussing his sexuality openly. The pair are pondering marriage
if Hawai'i makes it legal, and Jirgens is busy overseeing construction
of their dream house. The four-floor, 13,000-square-foot mansion
in a Detroit suburb will house an indoor pool, a Japanese garden,
and a 15-seat media room.
That project led to press speculation that their
romance was typical May-December fare. Gilmour angrily blasts
back: "There are two perceptions out there. One, I grabbed ahold
of Eric because he was young and good-looking and with-it and
all the things I'm not. And two, he grabbed ahold of me because
I've got money and I could take care of him. If there's 28 years
difference of age, then I'm an old, worn-out fag looking for
some hot, young fellow and he's the gold-digger. It isn't reality."
The couple concedes difficulties may arise from
the gap as Gilmour ages, but their main common interest is also
the top reason Gilmour came out at all: Gay philanthropy. He
agreed to go public to urge other rich gays and lesbians to
give more generously to gay causes. Gilmour himself donated
thousands of dollars anonymously since 1987, and more recently
poured $4.2 million into his own Gilmour Fund. The endowment
awards grants - worth $125,000 last year - to both gay and straight
charities. He and Jirgens also were instrumental in the 1994
creation of the H.O.P.E. Fund, which also distributes money
to gay causes in southeast Michigan.
Gilmour says philanthropy should pique the interest
of gays and lesbians who wish a legacy: "All gay generations
start over. Those of us who give to support organizations and
centers, to writers and video producers provide resources and
information for future people who are gay. They will not get
that from their families or traditional society."
John Kavanaugh of Detroit's Triangle Foundation
says the rallying cry is necessary. "People worth millions give
$250 to our group and think they've done their part," he says.
"A lot of people still worry someone at their bank's going to
see the check or their accountant's going to know they gave
to a gay or lesbian cause."
This pursuit of gay dollars ensures that Gilmour's
coming-out progression is by no means over, his lover says.
Jirgens predicts that as Gilmour feels the support of the larger
gay and lesbian community, the businessman's courage will continue
to build. "For many people, this may not be fast enough," Jirgens
says. "But for Allan, it's tremendous growth.He's kind of like
Rip Van Winkle. He was so involved in his work that when he
walked away from it, he didn't know anything about the world
out there. He hadn't even been to the movies in 20 years. To
watch him as I have go step by step to the point of coming out
was really monumental. And I'm quite sure it's not over yet."
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