"It's been the most incredible day of my life," said Pennsylvania Rep. Mike E. Fleck of Springfield Township, Huntingdon County, who on Saturday announced that he is gay.
Fleck, a 39-year-old divorced Republican, who is about to begin his fourth term in the Pennsylvania House representing Huntingdon County and parts of Blair and Mifflin Counties, said the announcement "was about being honest with my constituents."
He explained, however, "It was a big step coming out. It is something I have been working toward for months."
The reaction has been overwhelming, Fleck explained in an interview late Saturday night.
He said he decided to tell the residents of the 81st District he was gay through an article in the Huntingdon Daily News, his home county newspaper. That article appeared Saturday.
He told his very personal life story in what turned out to be one of the longest articles that paper has ever run, and the reaction has been overwhelming.
"My family has been awesome," he said.
He was bombarded with emails, and all but nine or 10 were supportive of what he has done. He noted some of those emails were from liberals who argued he should now become a Democrat. He will stay a Republican, he said.
He said even in his conservative district he has found support.
Fleck said he has known since he was very young that he was gay and he hopes that his story may help others, because, as he explained, there are 3 million couples out there that deal with this situation.
And even in his conservative district, it would be difficult to find a family that doesn't have a gay member.
He said most people don't know an openly gay person.
Fleck is a religious man, a man of faith, and that won't change either. The Bible has a few verses about homosexuality but there is more in the Bible about other subjects like love, he said.
"As a man of God and a man of faith, I've had these feelings my entire life," Fleck said.
Fleck's announcement surprised and even shocked his colleagues and local Republicans.
"I was completely caught off guard," said Fleck's friend, Rep. Jerry Stern of Martinsburg, R-80th District, when Fleck called him to relate that there would be an article in the Huntingdon Daily News Saturday about his sexual orientation.
Stern said he has worked with Fleck for the past six years and stated, "He seems like a nice bright, young legislator, a very intelligent man."
He and Fleck have worked together on education, agriculture and tourism issues, all important in the south central part of Pennsylvania, a heavily Republican area.
And both are very religious individuals.
According to the newspaper article, Fleck said he wanted to live a "normal" life and in 2002 he was married.
He was quoted as saying, "I also believed that by marrying, I was fulfilling God's will and I thought my same-sex attraction would simply go away."
But it didn't, and Fleck related that he was too caught up being a perfect Christian rather than being authentic and honest.
He said in the article he has met many gay Christians who tried hard to suppress their God-given sexual orientation, but at the end of the day, "I know of none who've been successful. They've only succeeded at repressing their identity, only to have it reappear time and again and always wreaking havoc not only on themselves, but especially on their family."
Stern said he believes Fleck has endured what he called "an immense personal struggle" over the years and he said that Fleck will still be his colleague and friend.
But he and Fleck disagree, he said, when it comes to living a gay lifestyle.
Stern said he believes it is wrong. The Bible teaches, he said, "We all need to be repentant for the sins we commit," and he said he himself is not without sin.
"It's not up to me ... I'm not the judge," Stern said.
Fleck included in his remarks Saturday that "coming out is hard enough, but in doing it in the public eye is definitely something I never anticipated."
Blair County Republican Chairman A.C. Stickel made the same point, saying, "I am disappointed he would find it necessary to make a public announcement."
Stickel was not critical of Fleck. He said he respected Fleck's service and respected him as a person. He called him hardworking and creative in representing his district.
But while Stickel supported Fleck's decision to come out, he wondered if such a public announcement might mean that Fleck might be supporting an agenda - such as gay marriage.
"I wouldn't support this type of an agenda," the chairman said.
State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-30th District, said he, too, has worked with Fleck on many issues and in fact just Thursday attended an event with him at the Smithfield Fire hall.
"He didn't say anything about what he was going to do," Eichelberger explained, noting his surprise when he was informed of the story.
"I have a lot of sympathy for him. I know he is going through a difficult time," the senator said.
Eichelberger said he will be interested in seeing how the people in Fleck's legislative district will react.
"I think it will be a very significant event for the people he represents," he said. He said the people in the 81st District are conservative. He also believes the Fleck story will go national.
At the moment, Fleck is the only legislator in Harrisburg who is openly gay, although attorney Brian Sims of Philadelphia, a Democrat, is considered the first openly gay candidate to run and win in Pennsylvania. Sims will take office in January, according to PoliticsPa.
Eichelberger said he had heard from people that Fleck was gay "for quite a while," and he said he wasn't caught off guard by Fleck's announcement, but he summed up by saying, "I was very surprised it was handled this way."
The State Representative from Altoona, John McGinnis, a Republican who won't take office until January, said he has not yet met Fleck, but he said Saturday, "I don't think a person's sexual preferences are a hot-button issue."
He added, however, that gay marriage for instance is an issue, one he rejects.
C. Arnold McClure, who once ran for the state Senate and was for 32 years the owner of the Valley Log, a newspaper in Orbisonia, Huntingdon County, has a unique perspective on the announcement because he has known Fleck since he was a child.
McClure is the Huntingdon County Republican Party Chairman and he said he was friend of Fleck and his family.
He said, "I don't know what it will mean for him politically. ... Ultimately, it will be in the hands of the voters, not the county chairman."
As for Fleck's decision to reveal he is gay, "It is between him, his God and his family. I wish him the best," said McClure.
He said the the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party probably won't be bothered by Fleck's announcement, but he said he doesn't know how the majority of Republicans will feel.
Fleck has an extensive educational background, having graduated from Liberty University and completed graduate work at Shippensburg University.
He is an Eagle Scout and at one point served as district executive of the Boy Scouts.
He and his wife separated a year ago and they are now divorced.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468. The Associated Press contributed to this story.