Photographer and Los Angeles native Jeff Sheng has taken on the plight of Mike, John, David, Natalie, Rico, Alexander, Craig, Matt, Jess, Anthony, Harold, Charles, Mark, Catalina, Nick, Kenneth, and Glynn and Celine—just a handful of the estimated 65,000 LGBT soldiers serving their country today. Another million are gay veterans.
Yet, as one husband of a gay soldier serving in Iraq wrote in an email to President Obama, “The day he deployed, I dropped him off far from his base’s main gate, and he walked alone in the dark and the rain to report for duty. Where the rest of his buddies were surrounded by spouses and children at mobilization ceremonies, he stood by himself.”
“I wanted to bring light to this incredible injustice,” says Sheng, in his Culver City studio. “This is open discrimination by a government founded on the equality of all.” About two soldiers a day are being discharged for being gay. This, as Sheng says, when we need trained and talented soldiers more than ever. “We’re losing medics, linguists, highly trained soldiers. When you’re lying somewhere injured from battle, you don’t care if the person saving you is gay, straight, nothing. You only want to live.”
And the penalties for admitting to being gay is brutal. In addition to being banned from ever again serving in the military, this from an email in the book from the Legal Defense Fund: “the service member’s DD214 (discharge paperwork) says on it ‘homosexual conduct,’ which is significant because many future employers will ask for that paperwork…”
In addition, they have to repay any bonuses and costs of education at a service academy like West Point, even if they’ve been in the military, 10, 15, 20 years serving the country they love.
One has to ask, how can this be?
Sheng did just that, beginning this project at the urging of many who viewed his previous project, “Fearless,” a collection of portraits of openly gay high school and college athletes that toured the country with more than 40 exhibitions. He couldn’t say no.
Sheng, a Harvard graduate from Thousand Oaks, CA, took out two lines of credit and began his self-financed, worldwide trip to photograph the soldiers who asked to be part of the project, to bring light to the great risks they were taking by doing so.
Read more the process and experiences next week in Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), Part II, coming March 19.