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By Dan Woog
There are many ways for athletes to be fearless. They can stand at the plate with the bases, in the bottom of the ninth. They can attempt a difficult dive. Rocket down an icy ski jump. Or they can come out of the closet as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
It took Jeff Sheng many years to overcome his fears. But in the years since, he has made it his life’s work to honor the fearlessness of over 200 young men and women.
Growing up in Southern California, Sheng was a competitive tennis player. Yet fear overtook him as a high school senior. He was starting to come out as gay. Unable to reconcile his sexuality with his sport, he quit playing.
The next year, at Harvard University, he met a closeted water polo player. Sheng could not go to games as his boyfriend – that fear again – and after a few months the relationship ended.
By senior year, Sheng’s ex was out – and on the cover of Genre Magazine. “He was confident – an inspirational figure,” Sheng recalls. Having studied photography, he decided to focus his talents on gay college athletes. It seemed like a good way to honor their fearlessness.
In 2003, the universe of out sports figures was small. Friends of friends recommended subjects: a rugby player and squash player at Brown. A Harvard rower. A high school athlete, the first Sheng had ever heard of.
He photographed them after their workouts. They were sweaty and tired – but comfortable, and in their elements. The shots were powerful, and moving.
The first 20 or so subjects were almost all white, and lesbian, gay or bi. In 2005 Sheng began meeting athletes who called themselves ‘gender queer.” He knew he had to be more inclusive.
The next year, the Queer Alliance at the University of Florida – where he’d photographed a female softball player who filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination – invited him to show his photos. A mix-up prevented gallery space from being used. Sheng suggested a hallway nearby. Despite fears of vandalism, he mounted the exhibit. The final piece was text, explaining that every photo showed an LGBT athlete.
A high school debate meet was going on. The teenagers looked at the exhibit, then read the statement with shock. They seemed awed and impressed – not giggly or nasty.
“I realized I needed to put the photos in student centers and athletic buildings, where everyone could see them and have their assumptions challenged,” Sheng says. Around the country – at schools from Penn to USC – the reaction was always: “I didn’t know gay people looked like that!”
He kept working too. By 2010, he’d photographed 100 athletes.
Despite positive attention on college campuses, the project – called “Fearless” – did not receive mainstream attention. Sheng suspected it was because he was an Asian tennis player – not a white football star.
But now he was not fearful. He was angry. He redoubled his efforts.
“I could have stopped,” he says. “But I wanted to make this project so big, no one could ignore it.”
Now, no one can. Sheng has amassed 202 photos of LGBT college and high school athletes. They play every conceivable sport, and represent every type of self-identification. They look strong, proud, happy – and fearless.
They are also no longer solely photographs in a traveling exhibit. Three years ago, Sheng began work on a book. “Fearless: Portraits of LGBT Student-Athletes” will be published next month.
Sheng has taken the title literally. Sandwiched in between the stunning photos (with accompanying explanatory text) is the photographer’s own story. He’s taken 30 years of his life and shared it with readers. Sheng includes unpublished photos from his first relationship with the water polo player – and details about the two times he considered suicide.
A Kickstarter campaign raised $50,000 – half the amount needed to self-publish. (Mainstream publishers told Sheng there was no audience for his book.) The money covered a fantastic design team – a young gay male couple, and their female assistant. They came up with the idea of eight different covers – and eight spines, each a different color. When placed together in stores, they’ll form a rainbow flag.
“Fearless” is a gorgeous, 300-page full color book. The photos and layout symbolize “the very beautiful, diverse community I’ve grown into,” Sheng says. They include a number of trans athletes. As part of Sheng’s own journey, he no longer uses headings like “Boys Tennis” or “Women’s Crew.” Now it’s “Casey, Soccer, University of Wisconsin.” The message is simple, proud, fierce – and very fearless.
“Fearless” will be introduced at the Nike LGBT Sports Summit in Portland next month. On July 21, it will be featured at the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks’ “Pride Game” at the Staples Center. To order a copy, go to www.fearlessproject.org.