He told his sister first.
She was his beta test, jokes Martin Steele.
His trial balloon.
The social worker from small-town Nebraska is at home Friday in San Francisco, telling his coming out story.
He’s talking to a reporter because the big sister he confided to back in 1987 is, in a sense, coming out, too.
“I came to realize I support marriage equality awhile ago,” Annette Dubas says. “It’s not an abstract idea to me.”
The Democrat from Fullerton is running for governor.
She says she is talking about same-sex marriage because it’s an issue she doesn’t want to skirt.
She says she is talking about same-sex marriage because she wants to elevate the subject, because there is still fear about coming out in small Nebraska towns, because having a gay brother changed her.
She says she is talking about same-sex marriage because she’s proud of that brother.
“If people make questionable remarks about the GLBT community, I let them know they are talking about my brother.”
And I am writing this column because it’s a story of family love.
And, as you know, love is a family value.
* * *
For Annette, 57, the story starts the day the phone rang at the farm she shared with her husband and children outside Fullerton.
For Martin, 49, it starts when he was a kid growing up in that Nance County town of 1,200 — take a left at the gas station and go two blocks. A boy with two parents and three older siblings.
Martin was the baby.
Annette was the oldest.
She was like a second mom while their parents ran the tavern and movie theater.
“She got kind of the first child syndrome. She babysat and kept track of us. If we didn’t want mom and dad to find something out, we didn’t tell Annette.”
Martin also didn’t tell Annette — or anyone — how he felt inside.
“At 8, I knew there was something different about me, but I couldn’t put a name to it.”
“It was like, ‘Oh, now I know what’s going on.’ And I was terrified of anyone finding out.”
He did everything he could to fit in.
He played football and wrestled.
He bullied weaker kids.
He laughed at the gay jokes. He told them, too, using the words everyone else did. Fag. Faggots.
He dated girls.
And from the time he was 13, he stayed as drunk as he could, as often as he could. He started smoking pot, experimenting with other drugs.
Every year, the misery increased. All of his energy went into keeping his secret.
“When you’re trying to suppress your nature, it takes a lot of work.”
He wouldn't trade growing up Fullerton, Martin says now, but after high school he couldn't flee fast enough.
Someplace bigger had to be better.
Turns out back in 1983, for a boy in the closet, Kearney State wasn’t that place.
He kept his secret, flunked out freshman year.
“Looking back that’s certainly where the depression started for me, the hopelessness.”
Eventually, he moved to Grand Island. Finally, to Omaha, still losing himself in alcohol and drugs. Meth, LSD, mushrooms, cocaine.
He was in his early 20s. He was terrified of AIDS, even though he'd never kissed a man.
“I knew there were gay bars but I was terrified of them. I believed the stereotypes, that they were these dark, dingy places with lecherous old men waiting to grope you. All the things people tell you gay men do.”
He is laughing about it Friday.
But then, he was planning his suicide.
He’d steal a scalpel from the hospital where he worked as an orderly. He’d steal Lidocaine, to numb his wrists. He’d get in the bathtub.
“I had accepted there was no point. I had gone through the stages and steps. The last thing I had to figure out was when.”
Before he figured that out, he found himself in the hospital breakroom, reading a magazine. There was a story about codependency.
“I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m not gay, I’m just a codependent who has a fear of intimacy.’”
He made an appointment to see a counselor — and ended up in treatment for alcohol addiction instead.
The first day of his eight-week program, he filled out a questionnaire — his health history, his drinking history. At the bottom was one last question: Do you have anything you’d like to add?
In the smallest letters he could manage, he printed: I think I’m gay.
During treatment he said it out loud for the first time: I’m gay.
A few months later, living in a halfway house in Omaha, he called his sister.
Annette was the goodie-goodie girl growing up. She was still good, but she'd grown into her own person. And she was honest as the day was long.
“She doesn’t know this, but she saved my life.”
* * *
That’s not what the big sister expected to hear when she picked up the phone 26 years ago.
“I was shocked. It was confusing to me.”
Annette had become a Catholic when she’d married in 1975.
“I had some very strong faith-based beliefs: Marriage was between a man and a woman. That’s the way God made us.”
But she listened to her brother tell her he needed her to know who he was. She followed his orders when he said: Don’t tell mom and dad.
She sighed. But she didn’t turn her back.
She did see a counselor, and then a priest.
She had so many questions. Is this wrong? Can he be around my children?
The priest stopped her: Do you love your brother?
Yes, she loved her brother. Of course.
“And he said, ‘That’s all that matters'.’’
And, it was.
After that phone call, Martin wrote their parents a letter.
He told his brother. He told his middle sister. They opened their arms.
His mom drove to Lincoln to PFLAG meetings.
And the first time he came home with a boyfriend, their conservative dad had the guestroom cleaned out and ready, says Annette.
“It was, ‘OK, Martin’s out, enough said.’”
* * *
Martin quit drinking.
"Once I came out the drinking and drugs were just sort of a non-issue."
He returned to Kearney State, graduated and moved to San Francisco. He came back to Omaha to get a master’s in social work and fell in love.
Martin and Kurt Smith have lived together in San Francisco since 2008. Kurt works for the city; Martin with at-risk foster kids.
Kurt is family. When they visit Fullerton, Fullerton knows they're family. "Which makes it really nice to go back."
They're not married, yet, but there is comfort in legislation that says they could be.
It's not the end of discrimination, says Martin. "But it's a great start."
His sister doesn’t believe being gay is a sin, or a choice.
“I didn’t decide growing up I was going to be a heterosexual.”
She believes, for her grandchildren’s generation, same-sex marriage won’t be an issue.
She believes society isn’t there yet. She knows people are still afraid.
And she’s seen how destructive it can be when someone denies a part of themselves. Destructive to them, and to their families.
“I know I represent lots of families across the state who feel like they can't talk about it publicly."
She can be their voice, she says.
She still remembers that priest’s voice. He was elderly, ministering at another parish. He’d heard her story before, how families became estranged, not speaking for years, or ever.
Don’t let that happen to your family, he told her.
Instead, the big sister got to see how coming out changed her self-destructive little brother.
And how it’s changed her.