If a gay politician comes out but many gay leaders never hear about it, is he really out?

In the last two weeks, Georgia’s gay political landscape got its own version of that oft-quoted question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Within days, our state’s short list of known openly gay elected officials jumped by two. Any way you look at it, that’s progress.

But the ensuing reaction raised interesting questions about what it means to be “out,” especially in metro Atlanta in 2011, where gay people are more mainstream than ever, but many still fear discrimination both within their families and the community at large.

How do we define ‘openly gay elected official’?

In the last two weeks, Georgia’s gay political landscape got its own version of that oft-quoted question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

One of these politicians, State Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta), came out in an instantly recognizable way. He called a press conference where, standing in front of a banner for state LGBT group Georgia Equality, he denounced an attempt to smear him and acknowledged, “I am a gay man.” The pronouncement was widely reported in both the LGBT and mainstream press.

To some, that made Taylor immediately more “out” as an elected official than Milton City Councilmember Alan Tart. Until he spoke with the GA Voice last week, Tart had never given an interview to the LGBT press, and he has never sought an endorsement or reached out to Georgia Equality.

That lack of outreach was cited June 1 in stories about Tart published in The Beacon, an online Fulton publication, and gay blog Project Q Atlanta.

The Project Q story said in its headline that Tart “plays hard to get” and noted he had canceled interviews, and “is gay, but not all that open about it.”

Tart spoke to GA Voice only after we reached out to him in the wake of those stories. He also never reached out to the now-defunct gay newspaper where many of our staff worked when he first ran for office in 2007.

Yet to say that Taylor is now more “out” than Tart fails the test of logic.

While Taylor has a boyfriend, he did not come out to his mother and others until the 24 hours leading up to his May 27 press conference. And he acknowledged that he would not have made the move if not for an email campaign by his current boyfriend’s ex, which attempted to out him and accuse him of misusing his office.

In contrast, while Tart has never called a press conference to say “I’m gay,” he had discussed his sexual orientation on his campaign website as far back as 2007.

More importantly, his official biography on the City of Milton website notes, “Tart, his partner David, and his daughter Madison… have been residents of the Northwest Fulton area since 2005.”

And interestingly, Tart’s approach is not without precedent in Georgia politics.

Decatur City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham is now heralded as the state’s first openly gay, African-American elected official, and she has been endorsed by local and national LGBT groups.

Not so in her first race. Cunningham didn’t reach out to gay media or gay political groups during her first bid for office, and her campaign was only reported after she won.

Still, to say that Cunningham was not “out” in her first race would not be accurate. Like Tart, Cunningham and her partner are well-known in their small town, and campaigned together.

In fact, they were out where it matters most, in their own communities, where young LGBT people who may not already be connected with gay organizations can see them and know they are not alone.

So my point isn’t to say that either Taylor or Tart’s approaches were wrong — or that any media stories, or the discussions related to them, were wrong. Instead, I’m interested in what the reaction says about the way the meaning of “out” or “openly gay” is changing.

There are politicians on ballots in Georgia now who are widely thought or even known to be gay, but they don’t or won’t discuss it publicly.

Alan Tart was not one of those politicians.

It used to be that “coming out” meant a specific moment (or moments) of breaking with a past history of hiding one’s sexual orientation.

But you can’t come “out” if you aren’t “in,” and Alan Tart was never in — at least in his political life on the Milton City Council.

And the fact that he didn’t have to be, even in the conservative political climate of Milton, should be celebrated.