oral history

"Everybody Has to Watch Their Parents Become Human"

By Ian Richard Barnes as told to Daria Meoli
"Everybody Has to Watch Their Parents Become Human"
Ian Richard Barnes with his father, Reverend Richard Barnes, on the occasion of Ian's graduation from Navy boot camp in Orlando, Florida, 1990.

I was 9 when my family moved to St. Louis, where my dad got a job as the head minister at Unity Christ Church. During our four years there, my parents split up for a little while. Mom had started dating someone when Dad came back to her and said, “We should get back together.” He’d gotten a job at a church with a school in Delray Beach, Florida. We moved with the promise that it was going to be a new start for the family.

This was just before my 13th birthday and I was angry. It’s terrible to say, but I actually really liked the guy that my mom was dating. He was kind of a man’s man. He was going to teach us how to shoot guns, how to go hunting, camping. These were all things that I loved to do that my dad hated.

My father loved the theater. That was his big thing. As a kid, I was in a gifted program and I got pulled out of class to do Shakespeare plays. Dad would take time off work and come to our class—teach us about acting, about preparing our voices, set design, and direction. I felt special, because my dad was there. But there was a part of me that wanted to learn how to play ice hockey, wanted to go camping and backpacking and hunt deer, and that was not going to happen with my dad.

In my core, I was happy the family was back together, but my parents were at each other’s throats. I felt like, “Why’d we move here? Why’d we bother?” Then things smoothed out and we had a golden age, where we were the beautiful family of this successful minister.

In the spring of 1989, my parents started fighting again. I was going to go to the University of Miami in the fall. I had already been accepted into the honors program, with a partial scholarship. I had my out. I felt bad for my younger brothers, but I figured they’d been through this before.


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Ian (left) with his father and two brothers in Del Ray, Florida in 1989.


Then one day, I was smoking on my back porch with our neighbor. We could see through the house to the driveway, and my dad’s car pulled in. I was like, “Why’s Dad home?” My mom had thrown him out and he’d not been home for a few nights. My neighbor and I ran across the street to his house and picked up our surfer and Mad magazines, like we’d been there the whole time. My friend’s mom called and said, “Ian’s dad wants him home.” And I was like, “Oh, man, we’re busted.”

I trudged across the street, expecting to get in trouble for smoking. I walk in and my brothers are on the couch with moist eyes. Dad’s sitting at the dining room table, with his head in his hands as if he were in pain. I knew this was not about smoking.

I sat down, and he said, “I know that you think it’s disgusting…but I’m what’s considered a ‘bisexual’ man.”  That didn’t register, because it was so shocking. Then he continued, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce.” Because I’m a selfish teenager, I respond: “What about school?” And he says, “Well, it’s going to be difficult because we’ll be supporting two households. I don’t think we can send you to the University of Miami in the fall.” The one thing he’d always promised, was he would work two jobs to get me through the best school possible. I said, “You promised! Now you’re a liar?!” Angry, he said, “Sit down, I’m not finished.” I sat down again and he said, “I have HIV.”

In an instant, everything I’d believed in became meaningless. That Freudian “your dad is God” thing was even stronger in our house, because he was a minister. He was, on a lot of levels, my idol. My idolization of him vaporized. My family vaporized. My dreams of going to school vaporized. I remember screaming hysterically at him, calling him awful names, and turning to my brothers and screaming at them, “Aren’t you going to come with me?”

I told him he was no longer my father. That as far as I was concerned, he was dead. I didn’t want him at my graduation. I didn’t want him in my life. I told him that I hoped he would die soon, and that he deserved to.

I stormed out and ran to my girlfriend’s house. We went into her bedroom and the tears came out. It was embarrassing, the violence with which I was sobbing and weeping; snot covering my face, choking and tears. I made a vow: “I am never going to let myself get hurt like that again.” From then on, I just held it in. It was a physical effort to hold the emotion in, like a tightening in the belly, in the diaphragm, just sort of forcing it all down.

I understand it differently now, but at the time I thought he was choosing to be gay over being my father.  It was a choice that he was making to throw Mom, my brothers and me away. I believed it was immoral. I believed it was against God, even though we were a very liberal church. After he got fired, we were homeless for four months because he wouldn’t pay support. I wanted to kill him.

The town we lived in was small. I got a phone call from one of my best friends, a great pitcher on the baseball team and my connection to the world of jocks. He called me up right before he left for the Air Force, and said, “Yo, man, what’s up with your dad?” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Well, I saw him on the north end.” The north end of the beach was the local cruising spot we used to make fun of, because there’d be guys hanging out in bikini bathing suits. I remember my heart sinking when he told me that. It was like, “They know.”

I ended up going to Florida Atlantic University, which in those days, we called “high school with ashtrays,” and “Find Another University.” It didn’t feel like college. When I started, I was like, “I don’t belong here; this isn’t what I wanted.” I had taken the ASVAB [the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] my senior year and I aced it, so recruiters were all over me. I told them I wanted to join the Navy after college, but I wanted to do it as an officer. Every single day, I drove past the recruiters, and every day, the siren song got louder. One day at the end of September, when I realized that I did not belong at FAU, I stopped in and said, “I want to go away to school. What can you do for me?” They said, “Nuclear power.” [Laughs] “All right, fine. Say I do nukes. What next?” And they said, “If you do well in nuclear power school, you can go into an officer program. You can write your own ticket.” I said, “Sign me up.”

I got out of Delray in April and went into boot camp. Dad had been in the Navy and showed up at my boot camp graduation. That was the first time we’d talked in a year.

Ian Richard Barnes (left) with his father and brother at Ian’s navy boot camp graduation in Orlando, Florida in 1990.


I was so angry at him the summer after he left. Once I was driving by the church on a Wednesday night to pick up some friends to go drinking, and I saw him standing outside talking to someone after a service. I started cussing, using the F word over and over (“F word” meaning “faggot”), and as I got angrier and angrier, I started punching my windshield. It shattered like a spiderweb. My friend in the back was just, “Dude, you want me to drive?” I realized what I’d just done. My knuckles were bloody. I said, “No, no, I’m fine.” That’s how angry I was. I thought I was angry because he was gay. But it was because he abandoned us.

I kept my dad secret. I didn’t tell any of my friends in the Navy or when I got my ROTC scholarship to Tulane. When my dad came out to us, it was like he’d been carrying around this shame his whole life, and then suddenly, it became our shame. We didn’t have the gear to deal with it. We were kids. I confided in my girlfriend at Tulane, and she said, “That’s not that big a deal.  He’s your dad, you need to talk to him. Keeping this secret and hating him is just going to kill you.” At that point, he’d gotten a job at a church in New York, and she lived in Connecticut, so I was like, “Well, maybe on this next vacation, I’ll go see him.”

We made plans to see a movie. At the time, I wanted to be as tough as tough could be, because I had to prove I wasn’t like him. He suggested this movie about an IRA terrorist who was taken prisoner, and I said, “Oh, this sounds great.” It was The Crying Game. I remember the boiling in my stomach afterward. As we’re coming up the escalator to the street, he said something about how shocked he was about the film, and I turned to him and said, “You could have at least told me.” He goes, “I didn’t know,” and we both laughed. That was the beginning of the thaw between us.

All I wanted was an apology. I didn’t want him to apologize for who he was. I wanted him to apologize for not taking responsibility as our father. Dad took my brother to Boynton Inlet in Florida about four months before he died and made amends to him. He asked me to go, and I said no. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

But I do remember sitting at Dad’s table in New York City—after his Sunday service, we’d go back and get bagels and coffee and read The New York Times—and he would often stop what he was doing and say, “Is there anything you need to tell me?” My heart would start to beat fast. I could feel the adrenaline dumping into my system and that physical pushing down would happen, and I would say no because I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t know how to tell him how much it hurt when he walked away.

If I could do it over, I’d have done that. I just didn’t have the emotional gear at that time. It took me twenty years of therapy to get it. So we never had that conversation. I used to fantasize about buying a couple of baseball gloves and a baseball, and going to Central Park to play catch—this sort of romantic notion. But my dad never played catch with me, because he didn’t know how to throw a ball. (Laughs) He could teach me how to act, he could teach me how to preach, how to command a room, but he was not going to throw a ball.

I guess every kid sort of wants their parents to be more than they actually are. I remember talking to a friend of mine about coming of age, and I said, “Everybody has to watch their parents become human.” It sort of happened all at once with my dad, rather than gradually. As you become an adult you realize your parents’ imperfections, and you just love them anyway.


About the Author

Ian Richard Barnes is a work-at-home dad, actor, and writer living in New York City. He’s currently working on a memoir about his family.

This interview was provided courtesy of StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives: www.storycorps.org. This interview was edited for length and content.

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