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They serve their country in the closet

Photographer Jeff Sheng focuses on the personnel who can't be completely open because of the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

September 18, 2010|David Ng, Los Angeles Times

For almost two years, Los Angeles photographer Jeff Sheng has been traveling across the country taking portraits of gay servicemen and women — their faces at least partially concealed — in response to the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has led to the discharge of more than 13,000 service members since it took effect in 1994.

The project consists of about 60 portraits taken in 25 states. A gallery show of 20 photos from the project will open Saturday and run until Oct. 23 at the Kaycee Olsen Gallery in L.A., accompanied by a new book featuring more portraits.

Sheng said that the project is more artistic than political in nature. He described it as a kind of collaboration with the service members, all of whom volunteered for the project and chose how much of their identities they would show.

"Their risk is their own careers. It was surprising how much some of them were willing to be visible to a certain degree," he said. Many of the participants learned about the project through the Internet and met with the photographer in locations near their base.

Supporters of the policy's repeal include President Obama and U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Opponents include Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who has expressed concerns over how the repeal might affect battle effectiveness and troop morale.

Four gay service personnel who participated in the photography project recently agreed to talk about their experience in the military. Their names and locations have been changed in order to protect their identities.

Ellis. Olympia, Wash. (seen in the photo above). An enlisted Marine stationed at a large U.S. base where her duties include managing aircraft and other specialized machinery inventory, she's been out to her friends and family since she was 13, but at work, the situation is more complicated.

Among her roommates in the barracks — there are three to a room — Ellis is openly gay. But she isn't out to her superiors and isn't comfortable talking about her personal life while at work.

"I usually change the subject, which can be an answer in itself. I'm not willing to lie about it," she said.

Ellis has served two years and is considering making the military her career. She was planning to study Arabic to become a linguist but said a civilian contractor who interviewed her for the program found out that she was gay. The interviewer told her that she could either end her career as a linguist at that point or she would have to take a polygraph test. Ellis dropped her pursuit of Arabic.

She isn't in a relationship, but she dated a fellow Marine while in boot camp.

For someone who's been out her entire adult life, Ellis is finding her double existence in the military emotionally stressful. "I thought it would be easier," she said. "There's not really a separation between work and not work in active duty."

Tristan and Zeke. Honolulu. A veteran of the Iraq war, Tristan has served as an enlisted personnel in various units of the Marines. His boyfriend, Zeke, is also a Marine. For several months, they served on the same U.S. base and managed to bunk together in the same barrack, unbeknownst to their superiors. (Sheng took the photograph in their shared living space.)

The couple, both of whom are in their early 20s, met while in the military and have come out to a small group of troops, some gay and some straight.

Tristan said that being gay in the military means that "most of the time you're lying." He said that he changed certain names on his cellphone in case his text messages were searched by a superior.

When asked about "don't ask, don't tell," he said he is of two minds on the issue: As a professional, he believes the policy should stay in place. "It's going to cause problems with camaraderie. Someone's going to pull a stunt," he said. But personally, he thinks the policy should be lifted: "It goes against everything we stand for."

Tristan recently left active duty and is a part of the inactive reserves while also working as a civilian contractor. Zeke still has more than a year to go.

Alana. Great Lakes, Ill. An enlisted member of the Navy, she has served for two years at locations around the world. Most recently, she was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

"I would like to be open about who I am," she said. "It's the little freedoms that you wish you had."

Alana, who is in her mid-20s, said that she is out to a select group of her colleagues but not her superiors. She said she has never received negative reaction to her sexuality.

Her current ship-board duties include taking care of interior communications, such as telephones and alarm systems. "I enjoy what I do. It gives me structure," she said.

Alana is out to her family members, but "we don't really talk about it." She was in a relationship with another service member until June, and coincidentally, she and her ex-girlfriend currently serve aboard the same ship.

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