Jeff Sheng

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: the Invisibility of Male Couples

Filed By Jeff Sheng | September 21, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: Jeff Sheng, photography, Servicemembers United

One of the most touching moments for me while working on my "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" photo series has been the photographing of couples. It dawned on me recently, that the element of relationships and couples, particularly of men, has been very invisible when talking DADT, and I'm sure a lot of this has to do with most of straight America being still slightly uncomfortable with the idea of two guys together.

I wanted to applaud the Los Angeles Times for using the below photograph I took as part of their weekend online coverage of my recent exhibition opening. A lot of credit goes to journalist David Ng, who spent almost a year covering this series, following me on four different photo shoots, and extensively interviewing the service members in my photographs. It was interesting for me to note however, that the image the LA Times chose to use in the print edition was not the one of the couple "Tristan and Zeke", but of the female Marine "Ellis."

"Trsitan and Zeke" by Jeff Sheng (DADT)

(more images and commentary after the jump)

Not that I think one image is better than the other, nor that this was necessarily gay censorship on their part, but it did give me more food for thought on my recent pondering of the invisibility of photographic depictions of male couples in the debate on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (Were more conservative readers of the print edition more likely to be offended?)

A traditional line of thinking on the talking points for repeal has been to talk about military preparedness and fairness, while only more recently have I begun to hear more talk in the media about the toll DADT takes on families and partners of those serving. I also think the photograph of "Tristan and Zeke" - two marines who serve together and in a relationship - might even cause some advocates for repeal some nervousness. Their fear of course is that for anti-gay America, what this image depicts is exactly why they fight to keep the repeal in place.

To be honest, when I first began shooting the series in early 2009, I had a similar concern that if I were to photograph two men together, that these images might potentially hurt the repeal effort. I actually didn't photograph any male couples in the first year of working on the series, and it wasn't until early this year when I got over this fear of mine - and now, it is photographing these couples and relationships that are the most touching and important for me. Relationships are in many ways such an essential part of being human, and we shouldn't deny the existence of them in the military and in the discussions and depictions of who is harmed by DADT.

Incidentally, this past weekend Servicemembers United held a first of a kind meeting between the Pentagon and military partners. I actually first heard about this event through one of the male couples I photographed, "Brad and Clay." Their story is featured as part of my recently released "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 2" photobook, and along with their photograph, I asked them to respond to what the image means to them, and "Clay" writes to his husband "Brad":


"One significant thing that stands out about our photo is my wedding band. While in uniform, it's a constant reminder of my love and commitment to you, a very large part of my life and being, which I have to remain silent about. I listen to others around me talking of their families and loved ones and I'm not allowed to say a thing. That angers me because I'm proud to be a part of your life and I too want to share that part of me to the people I work with. I feel no one in the military truly knows me, the real me." - Clay (to Brad)

It is this kind of emotion and love, and what can't be expressed while we still have "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that makes me realize the importance of repealing this policy as soon as we can.

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Well, women are kicked out at much higher rates than men on the basis of DADT (check women's percentage in the military vs the numbers kicked out, women are kicked out double the rate of men and women in certain branches, like the air force, are kicked out at even higher rates). Also, there have been reports of DADT being used to blackmail women who might report sexual abuse or harassment from their fellow soliders or superiors.

....why do I even know all of this? I don't even like the military or think DADT is a priority...


I think you're spot on about the media not reporting on gay couples who serve together.

So I guess I might be proven wrong next week.. bravo to Newsweek... they picked up on the image of "tristan and zeke" and are using it in their print magazine to highlight their coverage of DADT... quite a bold statement by a national news magazine... kudos to them. Should be in next week's issue.

Awesome news about Newsweek!

The issue of society's differing acceptance of overt male and female intimacy is complicated - as evidenced by a higher DADT discharge rate for lesbians. Female intimacy in America is more generally tolerated, yet that doesn't translate into acceptance of lesbians.

Our society definitely has issues with male intimacy, and it is a huge negative fixation when considering gay couples.

Jeff, I think you hit the nail on the head with "...photographing these couples and relationships that are the most touching and important for me. Relationships are in many ways such an essential part of being human, and we shouldn't deny the existence of them in the military and in the discussions and depictions of who is harmed by DADT."

That is an extremely powerful statement, and I thank you for taking the leap in including couples.

What up, Jeff! Just dicsovered your stuff not long ago (partly thanks to Gay Soldier's Husband (henceforth known as GSH)) and I think it's bad-ass.

I gotta say, my first reaction to your title was like cat's (although, unlike her, I don't have the privilege to ignore DADT, seeing as my partner's in the Army(just saying)). It would seem like WOMEN are underrepresented - especially women of color. I mean, we always are in any gay political movement

DC's Metro Weekly (a publication that has been criticized for depicting so many white dudes on its cover)(but it's not an exception) just ran an article about how people STILL haven't really done anything with the knowledge that woman/people of color are discharged at higher rates.

The leadership of the repeal movement is WAY out of proportion to who's actually getting discharged.

So you can see why your title raised my eyebrows at first. It still does, but GSH has a point about how female intimacy is more accepted than the male variety.

So then why doesn't that translate into fewer dykes being discharged? --there are other factors at play when it comes to the military: mainly, that women are "defeminized" the minute they put on a uniform, and that makes dykes a threat instead of a pleasant diversion.

So there are a lot of issues at work here. Still not sure what I think. I will say, though, that your title made me think! Which I always give a high five for.

Hey Randy - as someone who has been working on a photo series involving DADT for the last two years, I am completely aware of the statistics and the media representation.. I think my point was more about our society's fear of showing two guys together - and perhaps this also translates to two women together as well, now that some people have brought this point up.

I'm not saying that men in general are not represented in the DADT argument - but rather, no one talks about the idea of two men in a relationship in the military - that seems to be the third rail in repeal politics.. does this make sense?

Anyway, I'm interested in the response next week from the Newsweek picture - they were very kind to provide a credit to my exhibition in LA, so people know that the image is part of a larger photo series.. but I wonder what people in a national news magazine will think when they see a somewhat intimate image of two service members in the military together.