(FORTUNE Magazine) – From the Versace murder to Ellen, homosexuality is one of the most widely discussed subjects in America today. But in the upper reaches of U.S. business, especially at long-established blue-chip corporations, it has been rarely talked about. Executives at these companies, who largely belong to an older generation, find it embarrassing, irrelevant, and distracting. Gays and lesbians who aspire to top corporate jobs find they must leave their sexual orientation at home because disclosure could injure their careers.

Such was the case with Allan Gilmour, a witty, articulate finance executive who spent 34 years at Ford Motor and rose to become the company's second-highest officer. The son of a Vermont dairy cow dealer, Gilmour graduated from Exeter and Harvard, got an MBA from the University of Michigan and, after being recruited by all of the Big Three, went to work at Ford in 1960. Though a lifelong bachelor, Gilmour didn't conclude that he was gay until midway through his career--and decided to keep it a secret.

How Gilmour's homosexuality affected his success at Ford can only be guessed at. Though it was the subject of water cooler gossip, he can recall only one potentially damaging incident. Yet Gilmour had two shots at CEO and missed both times. In 1989 he lost out to Harold Poling, despite being the choice of incumbent CEO Donald Petersen. And in 1992 he was passed over for Alex Trotman, despite being Poling's apparent favorite.

After he missed for the second time, Gilmour decided to retire and left the company at the beginning of 1995 at age 60. He is on the boards of five large corporations (Detroit Edison, Dow Chemical, Prudential Insurance, US West, and Whirlpool) and oversees his personal foundation, the $4.3 million Gilmour Fund. Last December a small Detroit newspaper linked Gilmour to his charitable activities for gay and lesbian causes, thus making him the first high-ranking auto executive to be publicly identified as gay. Recently he met with FORTUNE's Alex Taylor III in Dearborn, Mich., to discuss his career at Ford and his secret life outside the company.

By the time I reached my early 40s, my career was going fine, but my social life had gradually diminished because people of my age had gotten married and started families. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I loved what I was doing. Ford was expanding overseas and growing domestically by creating such operations as Ford Credit. Was everything perfect? Heavens, no. There were plenty of days when I came home and said, "This isn't rewarding." But I very much liked the business and the people. And I didn't really give much conscious attention to a broad social life.

The realization that I am gay was not any sudden revelation. I didn't wake up one morning and say, "This is me." But I was thinking as I got older, "Hmmm." I had never married, never gotten engaged, never been serious, though I came close to being serious twice. So I started thinking it through, picked up some books, starting reading and reflecting about the experiences of gay people, and gradually concluded that this was me. My first thought was, there is very little I can do about this. My second thought was, this is a taboo subject.

I didn't tell my superiors or subordinates or colleagues. As time has passed, business has become more accepting of homosexuality. But it is still a controversial subject. And businesses in general don't want their executives to be controversial.

Some people think this is not fair; I think it is the reality of the world we live in. In the past 20 or 30 years, we have been moving away from the glamorous CEO and focusing more on the products and services a company offers. And in doing that, a controversial executive--either because of his political beliefs or because he hasn't paid his income taxes or whatever--is a diversion. Companies don't want diversions. They don't want executive personality being discussed; they want the products to be discussed.

The gay issue is so much a generational issue--maybe it always will be, although I hope not. There are many exceptions to this, but the older the people, the less open they are; and the younger the people, the more open they are.

I had hoped that I would become chief financial officer of Ford, and I got the job at the beginning of 1986. I was elected to the board of directors at the same time. During 1986 I said to both Don Petersen, who was the chairman, and Red Poling, who was the president, that I did not wish to have any higher-level job. I was very pleased to be CFO and hoped they were pleased. They had enough people running for higher office, and I thought I could make the best contribution doing the job with it totally in mind. They told me that they'd worry about succession--I didn't need to.

I did not want to be a candidate for CEO--but not because I was gay and feared exposure. CFO was a job I had looked forward to and hoped I would get, and was fortunate enough to get. I figured I would be CFO for six to eight years and then retire. I had a belief, which I still do, that people can stay in a job too long--in part because they may run out of ideas and vitality but more importantly because of the need for vibrancy in the organization. Bringing younger people along and giving them opportunities doesn't work as well if the top-level jobs are filled for a long while.

By then I had been going to gay events for several years. It was a very gradual process. I would stick my toe in the water, so to speak. Then I would back away because of the fear of publicity. As my career progressed, I was more in the media and making more public appearances. People would recognize me because they had seen me in the media or in meetings. I was not concerned that people would do something directly adverse. I was concerned about general chitchat or rumors.

Being gay complicated my life. Gay people don't lie; they dissemble. "What did you do this past weekend?" people will ask. "Well, I did a few things, and gee, I was busy and wasn't it hot and the Tigers won" or something. You give, if you will, a little answer. Not the wrong answer but a partial answer.

As time went on, I became interested in how I could contribute to gay causes. Although I was a typical corporate executive in terms of my conservative economic beliefs, I was becoming more liberal on social issues. I set up a trust under another name, and I used that as a way of giving money and of subscribing to publications so that I could be more current about what was going on in the gay world. When I was on vacation, I learned more. I went to more openly gay places like Provincetown, Mass., a couple of times; and Saugatuck, Mich., a couple of times; and Key West, Fla.; and to the big cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Seeing how gay people lived and played in places like this would surprise people who are anti-gay. Our world is not that much different from the straight world.

I would sometimes run into Ford people at places like those. And we would both be cautious because everyone else had essentially the same concern that I did: We are what we are, but it may be detrimental if Ford officially knows this. So work must be kept separate from private life. When people asked me about my marital status, I had begun using the response, "I married Ford Motor Co." I don't know whether that worked with the media, but it certainly served as a way to get on to the next question. But I'm sure there were murmurings inside Ford and outside Ford. That's life.

What worried me most about coming out was the effect on Ford. It could be damaging for Ford, not just for the potential controversy but because there would be some who would say, "I'm not going to do business with them." I was afraid of being a diversion away from the business of Ford. I'd be a lightning rod. I was also afraid in a personal sense that I would be marginalized. I'd be a one-issue person or "he's one of those." I didn't want the adjective "gay" always put in front of my name.

There was only one unfortunate event at the company. I got information one day early in 1991 that a reporter had been told by a Ford executive that I was gay. The reporter was working on a story that might have been negative about the company, and he was told instead to come to grips with the issue that I was gay and that the Ford family took a very dim view of that.

I talked to the reporter, and he confirmed that he had been told that. I went to Phil Benton, who was then president, and told him what had happened. I also went to Red Poling, who was the chairman and CEO. I said if something like this ever happens again, or some words like that, the individual in question should be punished or fired. Red met with the person who was said to have done this, and he denied it. That was the end of it. But I am glad I made an issue of it. At least in my mind, it put people on notice that I was not going to take this kind of stuff lying down.

Neither Red Poling nor Phil Benton asked me whether I was gay, and I didn't tell. I did tell them that I would never do anything that would embarrass the company. The subject of sexual orientation was not discussed at Ford. Did we discuss our personal tax situation? No. Did we discuss our religion? No. Did we discuss how a marriage was going? No.

In the late 1980s I had a change of heart: I thought I was the best person to be the next CEO of Ford. In late 1991 or early 1992, Red told me that I was on track to be the next CEO. I was excited and pleased. Yes, I was worried about my private life, but I thought I would tackle the CEO job and worry about my private life after the CEO stint was over. Being CEO would be a seven-day-a-week job, surely. There would be no opportunity for any personal life.

But it was not to be. I was told in July 1992 that the board had selected Alex Trotman to be CEO. Red told me that the conclusion was that compared with Alex, I didn't have broad operating experience, which was true. I asked Red, "Is there any particular trouble?" And he said, "No." I said I was disappointed, I thought Alex was a good choice, and I'd be leaving. A couple of outside directors called and said, "We want you to stay; you are important to the company." Red said that was the sentiment of Bill Ford Sr. too. So I didn't leave until the beginning of 1995, 2 1/2 years later.

I'll never know why I was passed over, but I think Red left the succession question to the board and did not take a strong stand. Whether being gay hurt my chances, I honestly don't know. I've heard some people say it did, but I doubt it. I may be naive, but the way I feel won't do any good one way or the other now anyway.

Except for that one incident, there were never any outward signs of discrimination toward me. Now, no big company is a monolith, and there are people at Ford who have been discriminated against. Some of the plant or office situations are not pleasant at all. I was perhaps lucky in that nothing happened around me.

So Alex took over as CEO in November 1993, and I became vice chairman. Two things quickly became clear to me. One, Alex sooner or later would be handling what I was doing--financial planning, strategy review, a lot of outside responsibilities--because that is clearly the purview of the CEO. And second, if my Ford career was going to come to an end with this position (enjoyable as it was), I wanted to move on to all the other things I could do with my life.

I'm delighted with retirement: It is a good life. There are a lot of hours involved with corporate and nonprofit boards but less stress--and a heck of a lot less pay. I don't get more satisfaction, but I get good satisfaction. I'm on five corporate boards, a couple of advisory boards, and I'm chairman of Henry Ford Health System, which includes the biggest HMO in Michigan. I also do fundraising for educational and cultural institutions.

Now that the risks were less, I became more comfortable with the whole gayness issue. I went to more events, got more involved in issues, met more people. It was still a slow process for me. I gradually would take steps, small and even unsteady ones, and understand more about homosexuality and more about myself. Gradually I would do more and feel more comfortable about it, and more comfortable about me and about other people.

I met Eric Jirgens at a dinner party in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in the spring of 1994. It was a very nice buffet dinner, and after filling my plate I went into the living room to find a place to sit. I sat in a chair, and Eric was on the adjacent sofa and we started talking. I thought, "Hey, this is a fascinating fellow." Eight, ten, 12 months later we decided to form a permanent relationship. For most gay people there is not a specific event; there is not an engagement and obviously not a marriage--not yet, anyway. So the dates are a little fuzzier than they are in the straight community.

For some time it had been clear to me that philanthropy for gay causes was something that was badly needed and was something I could do. The facts are fascinating and sobering at the same time. They show that charitable giving to gay and lesbian organizations is less than 1% of all the contributions given in America. And if you leave out AIDS, it is roughly 0.03%. Now, that doesn't mean that gay and lesbian people aren't benefited by the United Way and the Red Cross, for example--of course they are. But there are numerous specific needs not being met, whether it is youth, or older people, or civil rights, or coming out, or health issues aside from AIDS, or discrimination.

Near the end of 1996, about two years after I retired, I agreed to appear on a panel at the annual conference of the Council of Michigan Foundations. I had become an open fundraiser for a gay and lesbian charity called the HOPE (Helping Others through Partnerships and Education) Fund, which is an affiliate of the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan. I was asked to be on the panel to talk about gay and lesbian giving. At first I thought, "Uh-oh"; then I thought, "This is what you're supposed to be doing; go do it."

I appeared on the panel, and I agreed to be interviewed by a local gay publication. I didn't make any big pronouncements. But the local papers and the radio stations and tv stations got hold of the interview, and there was plenty of publicity. I had been outed. I had thought that two years after retirement, the world wouldn't really care about Allan Gilmour. And I think to a considerable extent that's true. What it cared about was that I had had a series of highly visible positions at a big, important, well-known company and that I was gay.

I met with Alex Trotman the next day. And I called the chairmen of the five companies on whose boards I serve and Henry Ford Health System's CEO and other organizations. Obviously I would have called them in advance of publication had I known. I got strong, gratifying support from everybody.

Since then my life has changed, but it hasn't changed in any bad ways. To the contrary, I am free, and I can be myself. Of course this is a controversial subject--the last acceptable prejudice, as someone wrote. Some people are concerned about it, and probably some people are upset about it. Who knows what people are saying? The ones that have said anything to me have said, "Don't worry," "It's good," "I'm glad you did it," "I admire you," things of that kind.

What is the role of corporations in all this? Ford has a large gay community, but it is scattered and mostly invisible. Ford Globe, an organization of gay and lesbian people, was formed about three years ago. It has 177 members. It is officially recognized by Ford. The Globe people meet with Ford management to talk about their situation, their concerns. Last year Alex Trotman issued a policy letter saying that sexual orientation is protected in the antidiscrimination policies of Ford Motor Co. The situation isn't perfect, but it is improving.

Why should corporations be involved in gay issues? To start with, there are gay and lesbian customers. I don't know what percentage of the population is gay or lesbian, but various studies have shown it to be between 3% and 10%. That is a lot of potential customers. Businesses that want as much sales volume as possible will pay attention to gays and lesbians.

The worry for any company, of course, is the potential for backlash. I believe the fear of most backlashes is overdone. Except for the "true believers," few people are going to spend the time and energy trying to figure out what they should not be buying. If the Southern Baptists are against Disney because of Disney's treatment of gays and lesbians, it is going to be darn hard to figure out what not to do each day so that Disney doesn't benefit.

The second issue for companies is that the success of any institution depends in the long run on its people. That means hiring good people, retaining good people, training good people, and treating people right. And in many places, gays and lesbians aren't treated right. They have to live the dual life with the resulting effect on productivity. They are not looking for special rights, but they are looking first for tolerance, and then for acceptance as good contributors. Companies need to find all the talent they can and then to treat it right--to make everybody welcomed and valued.

A key--and important--issue right now is domestic-partner benefits. Many gay and lesbian people take the availability of these benefits as a signal that an employer values diversity, that the employer in fact wants all its people treated fairly and equitably. And the cost of partner benefits is not high. First of all, a large number of gays and lesbians are not going to self-identify. In addition, most of those partners are working and are covered elsewhere. Finally, despite the cost of AIDS, the costs of other medical events--complicated pregnancies, for example--are higher in the traditional family.

The final issue for corporations is social justice. Some companies will want to be leaders in eliminating homophobia and in providing fully equal treatment for gays and lesbians. The last acceptable prejudice is one too many. Yes, companies are in business to succeed and prosper, but discrimination and intolerance are never good business.

There is much I want to do. It is easier now to pursue gay issues, particularly philanthropy. I'll soon be writing letters to corporations in the Detroit area to ask for money for the HOPE Fund. Before the publicity, it was unlikely I would have done that. Gay charitable needs are big; the involvement of corporations and foundations is very small. Gays need as much support as straight people. Almost by definition, one's parents aren't gay. If I'm black, almost by definition my parents are black. If I am Italian American or German American or Asian American, clearly by definition that's my family. But each gay starts anew--alone, uncertain, and probably scared.