WASHINGTON — When high-ranking officials publicly acknowledge they are gay, activists normally turn proud. But cheers turned to concerns Friday as gay politicians throughout the country digested the coming-out of the governor of New Jersey.
"The fact that you have the governor of a big state saying, 'I am a gay American' without shame is a monumental step," said Daniel Zingale, former Cabinet secretary for Gov. Gray Davis and now a member of the California Agriculture Labor Relations Board. "My concern is that young people in particular might misunderstand the headline, concluding that he resigned because he's gay."
Gov. James E. McGreevey, with his wife at his side, resigned Thursday, citing an extramarital affair with another man. What he did not mention, and what the gay community was worried about Friday, were allegations that there were financial improprieties and attempted blackmail.
"The whole thing is a little bittersweet," said David Catania, a city councilman in Washington. "It would be nice if a governor was elected who was gay and proud and didn't engage in dishonesty. There aren't a lot of opportunities for Americans to see gays in office. Now to see someone abusing their power, it's not much to be proud of."
There are 275 openly gay and lesbian elected officials in the United States, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington organization that helps elect gay candidates. In 1991, when the fund was started, there were 49.
Gay officials expressed concern that voters might judge other gay elected officials by the actions of one.
"When a heterosexual politician has a scandal, I don't think it gives heterosexuality a bad name," Zingale said.
Added Dave DeCicco of the Victory Fund staff: "Politicians having extramarital affairs and having to resign is not new ground."
Beyond the political calculus, there was a discussion of whether McGreevey, at 47, was the last of a generation whose politicians found it difficult to disclose their homosexuality.
"He is a product of his time," said Catania. "Hopefully his is the last generation of individuals so conflicted about their sexuality they feel they have to fight it."
Zingale agreed that a lot had changed. "When McGreevey got married and applied for his first job, it was perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay in his state," he said. "The world where he started and made choices was a very dangerous place to be honest about being gay."
Not everyone was sanguine that openness about sexuality was any easier today. Employment discrimination against gays is now banned in New Jersey and 13 other states, including California, but there is no such ban in 36 other states, said Steven Fisher, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, which promotes gay and lesbian rights.
"Keep in mind that we are living in an era where the president of the United States thinks the marriage of two loving same-sex people is something that we have to prohibit in the U.S. Constitution," said California Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who said he came out 35 years ago after the Stonewall riots, when patrons at a Greenwich Village gay bar resisted a police raid.
For some, McGreevey's admissions were deeply emotional.
Dennis Mangers was elected to the California Assembly in 1976 at the age of 36 -- a Democrat from Orange County, married with two children. When he arrived in Sacramento, living away from his family for the first time, he realized he was gay.
"I had to go home and tell my wife and kids," said Mangers, now president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn. When he heard of McGreevey's announcement, he said he experienced "a day of introspection. It was like reopening a wound in a way. I thought, 'Oh my God, that could have been me.' "
Mangers was defeated in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's election as president helped sweep many Democrats out of office. As he contemplated a run for state superintendent of education, he realized that a gay person probably would not be elected to that post.