The NFL’s David Kopay broke sports barriers when he came out of the closet in 1975; Martina Navratilova did the same in ’81. Elton John and George Michael made it okay for musicians to be openly gay in the late eighties and nineties, and, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres—along with her sitcom doppelganger Ellen Morgan—told the world, and Oprah, that lovable America’s Sweetheart-types also sometimes broke the mold.

This week we’ve broken another frontier of sorts in the “coming out” narrative, with a very senior Republican stepping out of the closet and into the media limelight. Marc Ambinder had the story yesterday: “Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.”

The Guardian’s Richard Adams wrote afterwards that, “In doing so Mehlman becomes the most senior Republican figure to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, at a time when the Republican party remains deeply opposed to same-sex marriage and the abolition of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars homosexuals from serving in the US military.” Ambinder says that, as of yesterday, “Mehlman is the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.”

I’ve always been a little disconcerted by reporting on the powerful and famous “coming out,” usually the fodder of the gossip rags and talk shows. The less the hoopla surrounding such stories, the farther along I think we’ve come. Curiosity drives coverage so much more than any level of import. It shouldn’t matter; it’s a private issue, and all that usual stuff. True, such stories give readers a fuller understanding of the kind of struggles gay people face while deciding whether to take the scary step of letting people know who they truly are. But, the idealist in me still longs for a day when those struggles are fewer, and our need-to-know, or care, or pry, less intense.

Mehlman’s is a different case, a private story inextricably tangled up in some very public national debates he often helped steer. His decision to talk to Ambinder is an acknowledgement of this, as is his new involvement in pro-gay marriage groups. So too is his confession that “he ‘really wished’ he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, ‘so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]’ and ‘reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans…’

There has been some solid reporting today addressing the implications of Mehlman’s personal life on his past, and the future of his party. Ambinder had first dibs, and challenged Mehlman on the conflict between his private self and his public positions.

Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities — such as the distribution in West Virginia in 2006 of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country…”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.

Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

Slate’s William Saletan focuses on the impact Mehlman’s coming out could have on the current debate.

Many influential Republicans have worked with him and respect him. He makes it harder for them to think of homosexuality as a behavior. They now know somebody who is gay. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, they now know that they know somebody who is gay.

… if you look at polls over the last 30 or 40 years, two factors have been driving public opinion in the direction of gay rights. One is whether you know someone who’s openly gay. More and more people do, and those who do are more tolerant of homosexuality. The other factor is whether you think it’s involuntary. This belief, too, has increased over time, and tolerance has increased with it. It’s pretty hard to imagine that the guy who ran the GOP during its recent campaigns against gay marriage would come out as homosexual unless he felt he had no choice. This is simply who he is.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.