"You just don't," he said. "You have a lot of other things to overcome in life and you don't want that to be the one thing that holds you back."
Religious beliefs, the "machismo" of the hip-hop culture and a history of losing men to incarceration and health disparities all stigmatize black gay men, according to Bartlett.
So does homophobia, and an identity among black men known as the "DL" -- or "down low," black men who engage in homosexual behavior but otherwise lead straight lives.
In the midst of the gay marriage discussions in Connecticut, Bartlett finally came out in February and was reelected for a second term. Today, he also serves as deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
"We are at the intersection of race and sexual orientation and we needed an advocacy group that gives voice to that," he said. "We take it from all sides and white community doesn't get it."
The coalition, which has surveyed attitudes toward gays, reports that blacks are "more likely than other groups to believe that homosexuality is wrong, that sexual orientation is a choice and that sexual orientation can be changed."
Being black is part of one's race and therefore one's character. "I was born black. I can't change that," one California man reportedly said after voting for Proposition 8. "They weren't born gay; they chose it."
But Leslie Fisher, a 44-year-old lesbian and marketing consultant from Oakland, Calif., said, "This isn't about choice, this is about who I am. It's like saying, 'I respect you, but I can't stand you as a black person.'"
Fisher's family is supportive -- a gay brother who died of AIDS was the trailblazer -- but is still reticent to address her sexual orientation directly.
She faced religious condemnation from a close college friend and a cousin who had taken on a maternal role when Fisher's mother died.
"I didn't expect it and was totally blindsided," she told ABCNews.com. Her cousin would not allow Fisher to bring her partner for Easter dinner, saying, "It's my house and my rules."
"That hurt so bad and is something that sticks in my heart. To this day, our relations have been tainted," she said.
Judy Gilbert, Fisher's partner of three years and a black woman, said her family also refused to acknowledge her sexual orientation.
"They may be in denial," said the 46-year old environmental consulting engineer. "My mum still refers to Leslie as my 'friend' and 'roommate,' and my brother just doesn't want to deal with it."
LaDoris Cordell, a former California judge who is a black lesbian, said the question of gay marriage "touches on a primitive nerve, a palpable fear."
"It's one of the elephants in the living room," Cordell, who is now special counselor to the president of Stanford University for campus relations, told ABCNews.com. "It's sin vs. skin."
But the "roots go deeper" than homophobia, according to Cordell. Proposition 8 hit a "sensitive nerve," she said.
"There is talk in the black community that this is not a civil rights issue," she said. "I am a bit shocked because since when did oppression become a competition and when did suffering have gradations -- my suffering is greater than yours and yours doesn't count."