Commentary: Ken Mehlman comes out

Bob Barret had been married to the same woman for 27 years. He had three daughters and a good job as a professor at UNC Charlotte.

So he had everything to lose when he realized that he could no longer deny what he had tried to stifle all his life: He was gay. Everything to lose, that is, except being true to himself.

Barret told his wife, then his daughters, then his mother and brothers. It was excruciating. But try as he might (and he did, for decades), he couldn't suppress his nature.

That was in 1988. Four years later, Observer columnist Dannye Romine told Barret's story to the world. It was scary, he told me, to give Dannye that interview, but also liberating. The public response was overwhelming; he received a lot of hate mail, including threats. But he also heard from people all over the South who said his story gave them courage and helped them feel less alone.

It was that mid-life coming out and the public nature of it that made Barret, now a Charlotte psychologist, able to identify with Ken Mehlman's revelation last week that he is gay. Mehlman is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and was President George W. Bush's campaign chairman in 2004. His coming out is like the owner of Morton's announcing he's a vegetarian.

Mehlman, 43, told The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder that only now has he come to accept what has been true all his life.

"It's taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life," Mehlman told Ambinder. "Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey ... The process has been something that's made me a happier and better person. It's something I wish I had done years ago."

To read the complete column, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.