By Jeff Walsh
Unlike many teens, Dan Martin never felt he was the only gay teen in his town or high school. "My logic told me there's got to be others," he says. "I'm not that unique."
He just didn't know how to find others, and was afraid of them finding him. So, he spent hours alone in his bedroom talking to people through his computer.
The 17-year-old Fresno, Ca. resident began his quest for support on Compuserve in Nov. 1993, as he attempted to "find others like me" in real-time chat rooms. Martin would access the "teens-only" channel and send messages to other people, not knowing their sexuality at that point. "Even in the faceless medium, I was afraid of mentioning the word gay," Martin recalls. "So, the conversation would go on for at least 15 minutes before I would even kind-of `pop the question.'
"At that point, I hadn't accepted my sexuality fully yet. I thought that maybe it would just go away eventually. There was no one to talk to about it, so I hadn't dealt with it in any way."
Compuserve led Martin to America Online (AOL), where he began his frequent message posting as Dannyboy69 in a specific area for gay teens. Martin wasted no time finding AOL's gay forum.
"I was very thirsty for knowledge about who I was at that point," he says. "The moment I got on AOL for the first time ever, the very first thing I did when I spotted the keyword feature was type 'gay.'"
It was several months later when Martin first came out after discovering two of his friends were bisexual. Martin told his friends he was gay, and then shared the details with anyone who logged on to AOL that night:
Recently, I found out that two of my friends, who are girls, happened to fall in love with each other. I'm 16 and so are they. They admitted that they were bi to me. Well, knowing for a while that I should tell SOMEONE that I'm gay, I told them, since they would most likely understand. I was on the phone when I did it. Anyway, I'm just saying that being out, not necessarily to everyone, but to your friends is WONDERFUL. And if you tell a friend who can't live with it and says "get out of my life," then what kind of a friend IS that? I seriously doubt that I would have it be known throughout my SCHOOL. That's something no one should do, if u ask me, unless you want your homosexuality being advertised on the bathroom stalls." -- 6/19 AOL post, titled "I've come out!"
But Martin wasn't always as revealing online. At first, he didn't post. He would log on and just read messages from other teens, even developing a crush on one user who posted frequently. When he felt he was ready to post, he took precautions to make sure no one would know his identity. " I put in my profile that I was from Detroit and I gave a fake birth date a few days off from my own," he recalls.
Before he ever told his friend he was gay in June, his support existed online. An online friend in Maryland talked with him for a long time, constantly asking a nervous Martin if he could call him on the phone. Martin gave in, somewhat, giving him the first three digits of his phone number and making the other guy guess the last four digits. "He did guess it out of four guesses, but I wouldn't tell him which one was mine," Martin says. "So, at two in the morning, he ended up calling each one of those numbers. I heard my phone ring, and I just ignored it. I was too afraid then."
A few weeks later, they finally had a two-minute conversation, but there were still complications. "I couldn't bring myself to say the G-word. So, the next time we talked I mentioned the G-word, and I got more comfortable talking about things with him."
It was that friend, who talked with Martin for two to three months, who encouraged Martin to come out to his friend Amanda.
"I got a secret"
Martin's first attempt at coming out lasted two months, as he would tell Amanda every day, "I got a secret." He would never reveal anything beyond that, just the same four words -- over and over again. "It drove her crazy," Martin says. "Then one day, she came in and said she had a secret.
"Eventually, we got to talking about it on the phone one weekend and found out she was dating a girl and I was gay. We spent a lot of that summer together. She was the first person I knew in person that knew about me."
But the company of two bisexual women soon wasn't enough for Martin. "I wanted gay guys," he says bluntly. A chat with a teen online led Martin to seek youth groups in his own area. A San Jose teen told Martin he met a mutual online friend at a local P-FLAG meeting. "Just the idea that these two gay guys online knew each other, I was jealous," Martin says. "These people had a sense of community with them, and I didn't. I was envious."
Martin contacted a national youth group online, who provided him with local youth group and P-FLAG listings. It was almost a year after he had started dealing with his sexuality online.
Some pretty amazing changes have gone on within me the last few months. I'm starting to get involved, and I'm proud of being gay. I don't care if someone doesn't like me because I'm gay, because I know I have plenty of friends that DO accept me (although no one yet has not liked me because of my sexuality). I dunno.......with the way things are going now, I'll be out to my father and the entire school soon. Actually, I feel a pressure to get my sexuality out in the open at school. That way, others like me might come out, and I'll just be able to be myself. - 9/24 AOL post, titled "Like.....OHMIGOD!!!!"
Out in the open
Corresponding online with a person from a national youth group led Martin to a youth group in Fresno, and two days later to the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco. "I was amazed the entire day," Martin says. "I was ecstatic because here I was on the streets of San Francisco with thousands of people just like me."
At that point, Martin accepted himself as gay, but was still hesitant about everyone knowing. "I had a problem with knowing that others around me might not accept it, which is the reason that most people stay in the closet. The problem was the closet, not acceptance. I accepted myself."
Martin was also helping others through becoming a volunteer online and giving referrals to other teens. He also started appearing in stories about gay teens in newspapers across the country. One even appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, which distributes papers to Fresno, but Martin's father -- with whom he lives -- didn't see it. Most recently, he appeared in a front page New York Times article about people using computers to accept their sexuality.
Telling Mom and Dad
In January, Martin decided to first tell his mother he was gay. His parents had divorced in 1983, and his mother now lives in Oregon. He says he is not very close with her.
"Coming out to your parents is seen as the ultimate, you know. And, at that point, I didn't think I could ever tell my father," he says. "I wanted to accomplish something, so I'd tell my mother."
Martin didn't expect any problems in telling his mother, because she has a sister who is a lesbian. So, he called his mother and brought her sister into the conversation, and they talked about her for a while. "I beat around the bush for a while, then finally mentioned that I liked guys," he says. "She seemed to think that someone talked me into it.
"I had to straighten her out on the fact that it wasn't a choice." he says. "I stressed I was telling her because I loved her and I wanted her to know." Martin is an only child, and that caused her to be upset that she wouldn't have any grandchildren. He then sent her some P-FLAG brochures in the mail, in an effort to help her.
"I mentioned she should go to a meeting, but she refused. I think she's ashamed of me."
At this point, Martin had supportive friends online and offline, as he had told five or six people at school he was gay. He was already considering whether he wanted to be totally out at school.
But Martin knew that he was going to have to tell his father. In March, he and his father were driving to Sacramento, and Martin steered the conversation to the fact that gay people are just regular people. His father agreed. Martin and his father then went on a business trip to Phoenix, where they met a friend Martin knew from AOL. Two weeks later, Martin's father confronted him about the guy they met in Phoenix.
"My father mentioned `That Eric don't have a girlfriend?' I said, `No.' He said, `I know what you do. You're on there talking to these people about that sex stuff.'
"He didn't want to say the word gay," Martin says. "That's the closest thing he could say."
Martin then asked his father if he knew why the guy didn't have a girlfriend. "So, my daddy says `Yeah, he likes men.'" The conversation ended that night with Martin's father telling him that he "has my number," Martin says.
Martin persisted. The next day, he brought the subject up, asking once again about his father "having his number."
"Your number's A-OK," Martin recalls his father saying.
"We were very evasive about the whole subject for a week or two, then we were comfortable with it," Martin says. "I don't think he had any trouble at all accepting it.
"It's worked its way up to where I can tell him what I'd love to do in bed with a guy," Martin says. "I like it at that level. I can be very open with him."
Martin reports that currently there isn't much happening in his life on the romantic front ("It's more like the "crush on every guy I see but no action" front," he says.) He hasn't made a major effort to seek out guys, and dating in Fresno is rather difficult, he says.
Part of his difficulty also lies in wanting more than just sex. "Everyone seems to have equated gay with promiscuity and there's no such thing as gay romance," he says. "I like romance, although I've hardly had any. I want to put my arm around a guy in the movies.
"Sex is a lot easier to find than romance," he adds. "I think being in the closet distracts people in a way that they don't realize they can live normal lives as gay men."
The closet is Martin's major nemesis, and one that he wants to help defeat in his life by helping out within the gay community. "I want to participate in making it easier to talk about being gay openly without all this bullshit," he says.
Martin says he recalls his first gay leanings when he was about three years old. He would watch television with his mother, and have her leave on certain programs that featured cute guys.
"I used to like watching Tic Tac Dough with Wink Martindale," he says, quickly adding, "not that he was attractive or anything. Then I would have my mom put on The Dukes of Hazzard." Martin recalls he found Luke Duke cuter than Bo Duke. "I remember evaluating guys as far as which one was cuter," he says.
In fourth grade, he recalls being 'turned on' by a guy and he recalls wanting to see the kid naked. "Girls I just didn't want to see any of," he adds. In the fifth grade, he recalls a classmate by name that he got to see in his underwear.
He was 11 when he first had sex with a friend, who was also 11. "I made sure that I was very cautious. I didn't want him to think I was gay." he says. "I just wanted him to think I was experimenting." He and the friend never had sex after that, but Martin knew it was more than experimentation. "That was sexual attraction, I thought he was cute."
Since his own self-acceptance, he has helped countless others accept their sexuality. He has received letters online that he was the inspiration for other people to come out.
One year ago, in an AOL post, Martin commented about an openly gay student. "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to come out to everyone like that?" he asked in his post. At that time, he was only out to a few friends, and was amazed at the prospect of being so openly gay. Now, it seems impossible that the same person wrote those words in so short a time span, but Martin takes his being gay just like he lives his life -- in stride.
"I never expected to come out, but once I saw it was wonderful, I came out at a comfortable rate," he says. "I expected to stay closeted all my life, because at that point, I thought it was the only thing to do."