From liberal Massachusetts to conservative Arizona, gay politicians have gone public and survived. New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey’s decision to come out on live television could have made him the most prominent among them – the nation’s first openly gay governor.

But there was much more to it than McGreevey’s sexual orientation – allegations of sexual harassment and rumors of being blackmailed, on top of months of fund-raising investigations and indictments. And that, say gay activists and political strategists, is what made all the difference: It wasn’t McGreevey’s homosexuality but his political missteps that mean the end of his career.

“I think gayness is being used,” said Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political science professor. “It’s not the root cause of his resignation. And it’s certainly not the root cause of McGreevey’s demise.”

Many things force politicians out of office – allegations of corruption, sex, infidelity. Rarely is it all of them.

If it were homosexuality alone, there’s much to argue he could have stayed. Rep. Jim Kolbe, Republican of Arizona, declared his orientation in 1996 as a gay magazine prepared to “out” him, and has not lost a race since. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts was reprimanded for hiring a male prostitute as an aide (with his own money), but has held his office since 1980.

“Why would you resign just because the public now knows you’re gay?” said Jennifer Veiga, a Democratic Colorado state senator who came out to her constituents while seeking her fourth term as a state House member. She’s won two elections since.

“Generally, there’s a sentiment, when public officials come out it’s a positive thing,” she said. “It’s a question of people seeing gay and lesbians in public life and understanding that we are the same as them, we share the same values. And we even make mistakes.”

McGreevey himself, in a painfully revealing confession with his wife and parents by his side, said his sexual orientation should be no bar: “It makes little difference that as governor I am gay.” Rather, it was “the circumstances surrounding the affair” that made the office “vulnerable to false allegations and threats of disclosure.”

Those circumstances the first-term Democrat chose not to explain, taking no questions after his brief announcement Thursday. Sources close to the governor have said only anonymously that the man involved in the affair was Golan Cipel, an Israeli poet who briefly was the state’s homeland security adviser.

A senior McGreevey political adviser told The Associated Press that Cipel threatened McGreevey several weeks ago that unless he was paid “millions of dollars,” Cipel would file a lawsuit charging the governor with sexual harassment.

On Friday, Cipel’s lawyer claimed the governor made repeated sexual advances toward his former employee and has now made him the victim of a “smear campaign.”

Cipel’s ties to the governor had already brought complaints, after he got the security post in 2002 without any background check or official announcement, and a $110,000 salary. He was reassigned a few months later and soon after left government.

That controversy was followed by questions about other McGreevey associates, appointees, friends and fundraisers caught in scandals, investigations or indictments.

The most lurid, until now, was when the governor’s top campaign donor was charged with trying to thwart a federal campaign-finance investigation by luring a witness – his own brother-in-law – into a compromising position with a prostitute and sending the video to the man’s wife.

“You’ve got to put this in context with the difficulties he was facing,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican political strategist. “He was just political toast.”

The governor said his resignation wouldn’t take effect until Nov. 15.

“I don’t think it has to do with being gay, or even an extramarital affair,” said Rosenthal, who has studied New Jersey politics for years. “This was just the last thing. People got together – Democratic leaders got together – and let the governor know they’ve just got to have another candidate.”

If the gay revelations are really just a distraction from McGreevey’s larger political failures, it’s a stunning step in a country where, in the past, homosexuality was something to be denied at all costs. And the larger debates over homosexuality continues, over adoptions, discrimination and marriage.

For many gay politicians, the poignant speech and resignation is a missed opportunity for a successful gay governor. Still, all stress the difficulties of coming out and that each person must find their own next step.

“Every time there’s a new disclosure or acknowledgment that someone is gay or lesbian, it further demystifies who gay people are,” said Colorado state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, a Democrat who came out after 19 years in office. “It’s a reminder that gay Americans are just like straight Americans.”

For better and for worse.

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