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April 29, 1997

Executive Decision

Profile of Allan Gilmour


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 jokes.

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 alone, too."

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 day.' "

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 radar.

"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 company's history.

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 company policies.

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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