Jeff Sheng

More and more young athletes coming out now: realizations from my project "Fearless"

Filed By Jeff Sheng | March 20, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Fearless campaign, gay athletes, out athletes, photoblogging, University of Michigan


Some of you may have recently seen some of my photos featured here on Bilerico a few weeks ago from outside the California Supreme Court in San Francisco on March 5, during the recent Prop 8 hearings. And while I am a photographer by profession, and I enjoy taking "news photojournalism" pictures, the photography project of mine that I have been working on the most is "Fearless," which is a series of portraits of "out" lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified athletes on high school and college sports teams, who are open about their sexuality to their teammates, coaches and friends and still continue playing their team sport. I began photographing this series in 2003, and over the course of the last five and a half years, have managed to photograph over 70 athletes.

This past week, I spent a few days at the University of Michigan, exhibiting and speaking about "Fearless," and also meeting and photographing some of the "out" LGBT athletes there at the school. For my first Bilerico photoblog post, I decided to share with you one of these pictures, a test shot from a photoshoot I did of an openly gay gymnast there named Jamie on the men's gymnastics team.

After the photoshoot, Jamie asked if I still needed to find more athletes for the project (the answer right now is a definite yes) and within a matter of minutes, he had listed for me over a dozen "out" collegiate athletes that he knew from all over the country, including from states that I have yet to photograph in - like Oklahoma. It suddenly dawned on me that when I first began "Fearless" in 2003, the biggest struggle was actually finding any "out" athletes to photograph, and for the first two years, I spent most of my time trying to find participants than on actually taking any pictures.

Looking back on these early years, I'm realizing that times are changing and thankfully, changing really fast. While during 2003-2005, I barely found 20 athletes, I now have over 30 willing volunteers on my "to photograph" list that I have yet to get to. There are many more "out" high school athletes than before - 10 of the "to photograph" athletes are still in high school. Another observation is that while I had only one athlete of color from the first 15 athletes, there is now a much larger percentage of athletes of color, making up over 20% of "Fearless." I recently did photoshoots of an African-American collegiate male football player and an Asian American female softball player from a Division 1 college. And while 20% is still low in my book, it is a step in the right direction in regards to visibility and equal representation. I am also finding more trans-identified athletes, which is actually one of the areas of sports and sexuality that we as a society have not even come close to dealing with in any resolvable way, but just being able to find a few trans-identified athletes in college sports is still incredibly inspiring.

And while of course we still have a long way to go before we see professional sports athletes come out in sizable numbers, or for professional sports to shed their reputation of being bastions of homophobia, I am inspired by the sudden and large increase in LGBT athletes from high schools and colleges, and perhaps this is a sign that times are changing for all of us - that the younger generation, in having more LGBT acquaintances, friends and even "out" LGBT teammates on their sports teams, will result in a far more accepting environment for all of us.

On a side note, I am incredibly excited to join the Bilerico team as a photo-blogger, and every week, I will be sharing a new photograph from various projects of mine (and maybe occasionally a photograph from another artist) and writing a little bit about that image. The pictures will vary a lot from week to week, but all will deal in some ways with LGBTQ issues. In fact, my next post will feature a photograph that I took from one of the Prop 8 protests from Los Angeles this past November... completely different, but equally relevant, from that this week's picture.

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Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | March 20, 2009 7:16 PM

welcome! a photo blogger is a very welcome addition to the Bilerico family...

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | March 20, 2009 9:22 PM

Welcome Jeff. Its great to have you aboard the Bilerico train.

Jeff- your work is amazing. Can't wait to see more of it on Bilerico.


where are his nips? how can you claim you're photographing "out LGBT athletes" if they're actually aliens from outer space!!

Wow! If that photo is an indication of what will be coming our way...I hope you'll be picking a particular day of the week for sharing a photo with us. It's sure to become highly anticipated! We're lucky to have you nella famiglia nostra.

Great photo of Jaime. I celebrate every out gay athlete. By being out you are amazing.

What an interesting project! Welcome to bilerico!

because we have always celebrated the masculinity of athletes, and because we have always been informed that masculinity was strictly heterosexual, i think it's important for us to see gay athletes come out. in the locker room, there was always the fear of being discovered or being propositioned or even being embarrassed by our interest in someone else's member.

i think this is a great project, whether they have nipples in their pictures or not! LOL

Jaime is not only quite handsome, he's also very courageous to be out in sports. Welcome to Bilerico Project, Jeff. I can't wait to see more photos - especially the historical shots.

hey great! gorgeous man in a gorgeous photo! great photo project. gives me a great idea. Thanks!

Great job capturing his body in a position that seems so natural to him, but would be nearly impossible for the rest of us. His body is perfectly linear, down to the toe point, which after years of training is very natural to him.

Is the yellow Michigan's warm up colors or something you chose? The pop of color is a great choice as well.

Looking forward to see more of your work.