LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Chuck Martens

Title

LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Chuck Martens

Subject

Queer Omaha Archives
Sexual minorities -- Nebraska -- Omaha
Interviews
Oral Histories (document genre)

Description

Click here to access the interview, LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Chuck Martens

Mr. Chuck Martens, long-time Omaha LGBTQ+ advocate, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on January 16, 2019 in Omaha, Nebraska. Martens shared information about growing up on a farm in Shelby, Iowa, studying at the University of Northern Iowa in the late 1960's, almost being drafted for the Vietnam War, exploring gay bars and bathhouses, his serious romantic relationships, the AIDS epidemic, and his early community involvement with organizations like Nebraska AIDS Project, River City Mixed Chorus, GAIN (Gay Awareness Iowa Nebraska), Metropolitan Community Church, and Citizens for Equal Protection.

Biographical Sketch 

Mr. Chuck Martens, born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a white, gay man, LGBTQ+ advocate, and one of the founding members of Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP) and River City Mixed Chorus. Martens grew up on a farm in Shelby, Iowa, and later attended the University of Northern Iowa (1967-1969) to study Business Education before leaving to pursue other opportunities. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Martens held various professional roles in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Kansas, including working as a respiratory therapist, overseeing insurance claims and managing several restaurants. After eventually settling in Omaha, Martens is now retired while continuing to work part-time as caretaker for the Lancaster Apartments and acting in local movies and television commercials.  

In the early 1970’s, Martens was active in the newly formed Metropolitan Community Church of Omaha, where he served as a deacon for several years. Later that decade, Martens served on the board of directors for one of the earliest gay rights organizations in Omaha, GAIN (Gay Awareness Iowa Nebraska). In 1984, he became one of the founding members of Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP) and River City Mixed Chorus (RCMC). After the formation of CFEP (Citizens for Equal Protection) in 1990, Martens served on the board of directors and helped organize National Coming Out Day in Elmwood Park in 1992. In 2016, Martens created Forgotten Omaha, a Facebook group of more than 73,000 users, where he works to “educate and inform members about the history” of Omaha.  

As of March 2019, Martens lives in Omaha. 

Interview Summary 

Mr. Chuck Martens, longtime Omaha LGBTQ+ advocate, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on January 16, 2019 in Omaha, Nebraska. Martens was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in the late 1940’s and grew up as the oldest of three children on a farm in Shelby, Iowa. Martens’ childhood was a difficult time, as he felt isolated and had a violent father, but occupied his time with reading, carpentry, raising purebred sheep, and chores on the farm.  

Martens was aware as early as kindergarten that he was “different from his peers, but did not understand what it meant to be gay. In high school Martens tried to date girls, but noticed that all the girls he went out with were more masculine looking. During his senior year of high school Martens had his first sexual experiences with other boys.  

In 1967, Martens graduated from Shelby-Tennant Community School and left to study Business Education at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in Cedar Falls, Iowa. During this time Martens sought out counseling at UNI to “cure” himself of his homosexuality, but the counselor instead helped him with self-acceptance.  

While at UNI, Martens struggled with studying and the transition to larger class sizes, and left in 1969. After his departure, Martens lost his draft deferment and decided to enlist in the Navy. In November 1969, Martens received the call to start basic training and was given only 24 hours to pack and say goodbye to loved ones. Knowing he could not fight in any war, let alone one like the Vietnam War that he believed was unjust, Martens began panicking as he contemplated fleeing to Canada or attempting suicide. Instead, he came out as gay to the recruiter and was threatened with prison and a $5,000 fine, but was ultimately given an honorable discharge.  

Shortly after these eventsMartens had his first experience at a gay bar, the Lounge on 5th Street, which was in the basement of a hotel in downtown Waterloo, Iowa. Later, after a brief stint in Minneapolis, Martens moved home to his parents and came out to them as gay. They were mostly supportive, but still felt shame about his sexuality, and initially believed they had somehow caused him to be gay. 

Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Martens held various professional roles in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Kansas, including working as a respiratory therapist, overseeing insurance claims and managing several restaurants. Martens also had three serious relationships during this time with Jim (1971-1972), Tom (1973-1980), and Larry (1980-1984), two of whom died from complications related to AIDS in 1992.  

In the early 1970’s, Martens became active in the newly formed Metropolitan Community Church of Omaha, where he served as a deacon for several years. Later that decade, Martens served on the board of directors for one of the earliest gay rights organizations in Omaha, GAIN (Gay Awareness Iowa Nebraska). In 1984, he became one of the founding members of Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP) and River City Mixed Chorus (RCMC). After the formation of CFEP (Citizens for Equal Protection) in 1990, Martens served on the board of directors and helped organize the National Coming Out Day event in Elmwood Park in 1992. In 2016, Martens created Forgotten Omaha, a Facebook group of more than 73,000 users, where he works to “educate and inform members about the history” of Omaha.  

As of March 2019, Martens lives in Omaha and is retired, but continues to work part-time as caretaker for the Lancaster Apartments and acting in local movies and television commercials.  

In this interview, Martens also discusses the AIDS epidemic, facing discrimination for his sexuality, and Omaha’s former bathhouses, gay bars, tearooms and cruising spots.  

Interview Notes 

Trigger warning for death, suicide and anti-gay violence. Interview also includes frank discussions of sex.  

Date

2019 January 16

Creator

Luke Wegener

Publisher

University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries

Relation

LGBTQ+ Oral History Collection finding aid available at https://archives.nebraska.edu/repositories/4/resources/604

Interviewer

Luke Wegener

Interviewee

Chuck Martens

Duration

2:03:36

Files

ChuckMartensPhoto.jpg

Citation

Luke Wegener, “LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Chuck Martens,” Queer Omaha Archives | UNO Libraries, accessed September 18, 2021, https://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/items/show/3308.

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