Legacy of Voices is an oral history project created in 2008 by Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell, inspired by their realization that to better understand their own lives, they could turn to LGBTQ+ community members who had gone before them. From 2008-2012, Lara and Brian recorded interviews with gay and lesbian elders over age 70 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. Hearing the stories of these elders with their passions and beliefs, failures and successes, and reflections moved Brian and Lara deeply, and helped them chart their own paths forward. Meanwhile, the actual interview tapes sat in a box in Brian’s closet for over a decade, until Brian discovered OUTWORDS—a unique opportunity for these remarkable, nearly-lost stories to be seen, heard, studied, and celebrated by queer people and allies around the globe. OUTWORDS thanks Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell for their visionary work, and for donating thirteen Legacy of Voices interviews to OUTWORDS.
Barnett Shepherd was born on July 26, 1938 in St. Joseph, Missouri. He spent his early childhood in Greenville, Mississippi surrounded by extended family, where his father worked at the United States Gypsum Company and his mother ran a millinery shop. Because his older brother often acted out and struggled academically, Barnett felt pressure to be the perfect child for his parents. He loved gardening, dressing like a girl, and playing with dolls, and he was devastated when his parents were upset at him for doing so. His family moved to Clark, New Jersey for his middle school years, then Oregon for high school. During this time, Barnett worked hard to present a nice personality, always smiling and determined to keep everyone around him happy. He took on leadership positions in school and church. By the time he graduated high school, he set his sights on becoming a clergyman to serve his local community and push for racial integration across the nation.
All his life, Barnett knew that he was attracted to other men, but he wanted to be a socially accepted minister who had a wife and family. As he completed his theological coursework at Lewis and Clark and then seminary school, he continued to date girls, while staying in long-lasting but sexless relationships with them. He stayed completely silent about his attraction to other men.
After getting ordained, Barnett went to work in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s to open and integrate a Presbyterian church, which was a long and challenging process. He then moved to Columbus, Indiana to work as an associate minister for education. By age 30, he realized that he couldn’t fulfill his needs for intimacy if he continued his life in church that way. When he explained his dilemma to church leadership, they gave him the cold shoulder. He left and went to Indiana University to study art history, which he then taught at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Throughout this transitional period, Barnett discussed his sexuality with a psychiatrist, who continued to encourage him to become straight. Agonized, Barnett switched to a psychologist in Florida, who instead introduced him to the gay community and encouraged him to learn more. Barnett started attending a local gay organization’s meetings, where he ran into other people from the university. He visited a gay bar in Fort Lauderdale with the group and had a fantastic night dancing, kissing, and experiencing intimacy that fulfilled him.
Barnett then moved to New York, where he met and fell in love with his current partner, Nick, who was the president of Integrity New York in the Episcopal church. They now share a home at Staten Island, where Barnett is busy writing books detailing the stories, beauty, and scenery of Staten Island. Barnett also restores homes and leads tours around Staten Island. He is active in church with Nick, unafraid and happy to be out and proud of his love.