Jim Neal, the Democratic dark horse challenging North Carolina Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, has disclosed he is gay — making him one of the nation’s few openly homosexual candidates for a statewide office.

Neal, 50, a Chapel Hill investment banker, discussed his sexual orientation during an online interview with a liberal blog, NCBlue over the weekend. He said his family, friends and business associates already know.

“It’s no secret,” Neal said in an interview Monday. “Why would you not talk about the color of your eyes?”

Neal’s quest is unusual: He is seeking to become the second openly gay Senate nominee of a major political party in American history. The first was Ed Flanagan, who was the unsuccessful Democratic Senate nominee in Vermont in 2000, losing to then-Republican Jim Jeffords.

At the moment, Neal is the only announced Democrat for Dole’s seat. But Democratic leaders are still trying to recruit better-known candidates into the race, among them David F. Kirby, a Raleigh lawyer and former law partner of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There has been growing acceptance of gays in public life both in the nation and in North Carolina. Julia Boseman of Wilmington became the first openly gay person elected to North Carolina’s Senate in 2004. In August, Gov. Mike Easley appointed Judge John S. Arrowood to the N.C. Court of Appeals, making him the first openly gay statewide official. He will face election next year to retain his seat.

Nationally, several members of Congress have announced they are gay, although usually they waited until they were elected.

But for some politicians from conservative states, the suggestion of homosexuality can be fatal: In recent weeks, the national Republican establishment has shunned Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who was arrested in a public sex sting in an airport men’s room. Craig has insisted he is not gay.

In North Carolina, Neal’s disclosure was welcomed by some members of the gay community. “I think what Jim Neal has done is be honest with the voters,” said Mike Nelson, an Orange County commissioner who is gay. “We live in an age with a lot of cynicism about politics. Mr. Neal has been honest about something in his life that could potentially have some political downside. I think voters will respect that.”

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a gay advocacy group, said Neal made the right decision.

“I think the right openly gay candidate can win in North Carolina,” Palmquist said. “Senator Boseman demonstrated that a lesbian candidate can win in a district that went 56 percent for Bush. Voters are a lot more interested in what a candidate has to say about the issues that matter to them, than their sexual orientation.”

In past years, homosexuality has been a divisive issue in North Carolina’s Bible Belt politics. The organization of former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms cited contributions by gays or support by Democrats for gay-rights legislation to attack Senate candidates such as Jim Hunt and Harvey Gantt.

But national polls suggest that the public has become more accepting of homosexuality, including the idea of gays’ holding public office. A national Zogby poll of likely voters conducted in July found that 77 percent would vote for an openly gay legislative candidate, while 19 percent said they wouldn’t. The survey of 1,012 had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. There is no comparable information for North Carolina.

The number of openly gay elected officials has grown nationally from 49 to 380 since 1991, according to Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Organization, a political action committee.

Neal said he hoped the issue of sexuality would blow over.

“I hope this race is not about my sexuality,” Neal said. ” … I’m not running to make a social statement. I’m not running as the gay candidate. I am many things — an American, a North Carolinian, a parent, a businessman and lots of other things.”

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