New Jersey politics are notoriously nasty, bizarre and corrupt, but not even the most seasoned or cynical operative or observer was prepared for Gov. Jim McGreevey’s admission on Thursday that he was gay, had cheated on his wife with a man, and was resigning.

It was encouraging and heartening, however, that my fellow New Jerseyans — even while reeling from the shock of it all — were able to separate the issue of McGreevey's sexual orientation from the political and practical realities that compelled our governor's resignation.

But the tolerance and sympathy expressed by McGreevey's constituents is a relatively new cultural development. The governor grew up and charted his career in a world in which being true to his sexual identity and fulfilling his professional ambitions were largely mutually exclusive goals. One can imagine the pain and suffering that could have been spared had that not been the case.

Reading between the lines of all the news reports Friday, it seems a fair assumption that the invaluable political clout the governor was willing to expend — much to the frustration and bafflement of his advisers — to keep the man said to have been his lover in a series of lucrative, well-connected jobs in both the public and private sector, may not have been acts of support for a romantic partner but payoffs to a blackmailer. Golan Cipel’s lack of qualifications and work ethic eventually exhausted even McGreevey's considerable connections, apparently forcing Cipel to seek the easy money — reportedly through a $5 million “sexual harassment” lawsuit.

As of Friday afternoon, the suit had not been filed. It has already been branded extortion, and given the facts of the relationship known so far, it's hard to imagine the suit will be viewed as anything more than that. (The governor took a preemptive strike and outed himself ahead of the inevitable.)

But one cannot be blackmailed unless one has a secret to hide, and hidden secrets denote shame. Again, had McGreevey not felt compelled — by his blue-collar upbringing, by his Roman Catholicism, by social and familial expectations, by the incontrovertible requirements of a political career of the times — to deny and repress his natural inclinations, he might not have had anything to hide. At least not in his personal life.

But corruption and criminality are different matters entirely, and McGreevey’s administration has been embroiled in investigations and scandals completely unrelated to his startling personal revelations. Close associates and members of his administration have been indicted, and McGreevey himself is part of a federal investigation. There was much speculation in New Jersey that McGreevey would not be able to hold on to his office until the end of his term, and that New Jersey Democrats would block him from seeking a second term and replace him on the ticket in 2005.

For this reason, McGreevey is an imperfect poster boy for the injustice of intolerance destroying a career. His career was in serious trouble already. In fact, it could be argued that his admission on Thursday deflected attention from the cloud of corruption hanging over his administration; for sure, it engendered public sympathy and support that had been seriously lacking in his approval ratings.

No one is suggesting that anyone, let alone McGreevey, would choose this particular path out of office. But for a while Thursday, his adversaries were teetering on a tightrope of political correctness, tempering their usual brutal attacks on the governor so as not to appear anti-gay.

But instead of shielding his questionable public life with his sensational private one, the governor handed politicians across the country the opportunity to become gay rights activists. And for the most part, they made the most of it.

He didn’t resign because he was gay, his critics said. He resigned because his administration was crumbling. We don’t care that he’s gay; we care that he’s corrupt. On the same day that the Supreme Court of California invalidated the same-sex marriages that had been performed in San Francisco over the winter, the embattled governor of New Jersey had politicians across the country tripping over themselves to express and confirm their tolerance and understanding.

For McGreevey, the efforts of his adversaries to distance themselves from the gay issue will likely result only in more vigorous attempts to find criminal evidence against his administration that is unrelated to the sex scandal.

That politicians, when cornered, were loath to say or do anything that could be construed as anti-gay, however, also reveals an interesting shift in our culture: Young gays today are coming of age and into professional prominence in a world radically different from the one that produced McGreevey.

For gays of McGreevey’s generation and those who came before, society had the option of accepting and benefiting from their talent, work and contributions without accepting them. We have always had gay school teachers and soldiers, politicians and sports heroes. We've also had the option to pretend otherwise. Society no longer has this option, because today’s generation of gays will not stand to be forced to choose between their personal happiness and their professional ambitions.

The McGreevey episode is just further evidence of the fallacy of the assumptions we make about who “is” and who is not, and the pain and pointlessness of the personal choices he had to make.

We’re either going to have to accept openly gay men and women as our elected officials, school teachers, soldiers, sports heroes, business leaders and parents, or we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of doing without them in those areas.

And if we ever deplete the ranks of our best and brightest by that much, we won't be left with much.