Jeff Sheng’s photographs of gay and lesbian servicepeople are based on a simple premise: like our faulty “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the photographs focus on appearances: women and men in uniform, not being asked about their sexual orientation, and by hiding this part of their identity, safely secure in their military positions. The visual imagery, however, belies, comfort in a secure job: in one of the first images Sheng took, a hand covers one soldier’s face. In another, shadows hide two women in a kiss.
For Sheng’s subjects, the choice to participate was a complex, personal decision. Just being photographed, despite the fact that faces would not be shown, was to risk dismissal. One of the soldiers, Jess, describes the feeling of always asking whether to come out or stay closeted:
After serving in Afghanistan, Jess was moved from what he called a “more liberal” unit to one where he was “pushed back in the closet.” He finds his situation difficult. “You can’t get to know people,” he said. “You can’t develop bonds with the people you’re fighting with day in and day out. I can’t talk about myself. I’m afraid I’ll reveal something. I’m constantly on guard.”
Sheng’s image of two women is particularly striking. Facing each other, one woman in her navy uniform, her partner in a red dress with tightly coiffed hair, evokes 50’s glamour and style; it’s ironic to apply the secrecy and shame of a bygone era to an ostensibly more progressive 2010.
Though President Obama and legislative leaders seem to be crawling in the repeal process of DADT, the conclusion that DADT will be repealed is certain. It’s just a matter of time.