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Becoming fearless

Stanford fellow and photographer documents 13 years of LGBT student-athletes

Growing up in a conservative, religious Southern California suburb in the 1990s, Jeff Sheng didn't feel he could be openly gay.

In particular, he grappled with his identity as an athlete. Sheng played tennis from an early age. In high school, the tennis court became both a site for release and a source of conflict.

"I believed that being openly gay and being a competitive athlete were incompatible with each other," he writes in "Fearless: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes," his combination memoir-photography series of openly gay high school and college athletes.

Now a well-known photographer working toward his doctorate in sociology at Stanford University, Sheng has shot over the last 13 years what he describes as a "visual ethnography." "Fearless" features more than 200 portraits of student-athletes from around the country who did what Sheng was not able to do as a high school tennis player: go public about their sexual orientation. The photographer will give a talk about his project at Stanford's Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Stanford Athletic Department; Stanford OpenXChange; the Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and the Stanford Men's Project.

Despite being nearly 300 pages long and representing athletes from a wide range of schools, sports and regions of the country, "Fearless" is a deeply personal book. It begins with the story of Sheng's own past -- being raised by immigrant parents from Taiwan, being closeted in high school, struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts and eventually coming to grips with his own identity.

"When I was growing up in high school in the 1990s, it was definitely super taboo to be openly gay or lesbian," Sheng told the Weekly during a recent interview. "There were two people in my whole high school of 2,400 who were out. ... There was a lot of homophobia, especially in sports."

One of those two people was a senior on the tennis team when Sheng was a freshman. Before the season started that year, the senior was nominated to be the team's co-captain. But for some reason, he decided not to play that year. Sheng writes that he remembers some of the younger team members "saying that they were glad, since they didn't want a gay guy on the team with them.

"One of them even joked how 'he probably had AIDS anyway,' and it was a relief he wasn't with us."

Sheng was also voted co-captain before his senior year, but quit the team as he started to confront his sexual orientation for the first time.

"One of the hardest parts about discovering a gay sexual orientation as a young person is realizing that you can't say anything about it," he writes in the book. "It creates this incredible disconnect with reality and emotion, and you quickly learn to hide any discernible give-away to whom you find attractive. Unfortunately, this coping strategy makes you less human, and the toll that this takes is sometimes irreversible."

After quitting tennis, Sheng picked up photography, immersing himself in his new passion. "Fearless" includes prints of his early photographs -- pedestrians waiting in front of palm trees and cars at Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, pages of black-and-white negatives, early self-portraits he took as an undergraduate at Harvard University.

Sheng thought that college, 3,000 miles away from home, would be the place where he would finally feel comfortable coming out and being himself. Yet it took him until the end of his freshman year to do so. First, he had to work through deeply "internalized homophobia," he said. Photography helped him through it, giving him the "voice and the courage to deal with my sexuality," he writes. "It also probably saved my life as it helped me deal with all the emotions of finally coming out."

Sheng went on to major in film-making and photography, and he had his first relationship with a man: Mike Crosby, at the time a closeted member of the Harvard water polo team.

"Fearless" documents their relationship the summer between freshman and sophomore years in 1999, with Sheng's words accompanied by his photos of Crosby -- at a beach in Malibu, on a road trip to Las Vegas, kissing on a hike in San Francisco, sitting in a hotel room with two beds because the young men were nervous about what the receptionist would think if they asked for one.

Years later, after the two broke up, Crosby came out as gay on the cover of "Genre," a magazine for gay men. The captain of the varsity water polo team at the time, Crosby was photographed at the pool in his Speedo, leaning on a water polo ball, gazing straight into the lens.

Something about this image and what it stood for struck Sheng. He had always had an inclination toward social activism, he said, but this shot solidified his desire to use photography to document openly gay athletes as a means of effecting social change.

In 2003, Sheng set out to photograph any "out" student-athletes he could find. He found subjects through mutual friends and by sending out email blasts. If he had to travel, he would take a Greyhound bus and stay the weekend wherever the student lived, sleeping on their couch or floor.

Then as now, Sheng asked his subjects to wear comfortable clothing that represented their sport, and he always shot them at their school or in their community. Soon after beginning the project, unsatisfied with how the portraits were turning out, he began asking his subjects to work out -- run a lap or take a few shots on the basketball court -- or to meet them after a game so he could capture them in a more natural environment.

Among the photographs taken shortly after Sheng made this shift is one of Aaron, a Brown University squash player. Wearing a white polo shirt with beads of sweat dripping down his face, nose and chin, Aaron takes up a two-page spread in "Fearless."

The book's pages are filled with portraits of soccer players, basketball players, swimmers, tennis players, cross-country runners, cyclists, gymnasts, divers, lacrosse players and water polo players (including Crosby). Some are standing or sitting; others, Sheng captured in movement. Many are holding something representative of their sport -- a basketball, a tennis racket, a football helmet. All look directly into the camera, giving a sense of profound intimacy.

"I try to take a photograph where you look into them in some way, where there's an authentic part about them showing through the image," Sheng said.

Sheng worked to make "Fearless" inclusive in terms of the broader LGBT community by including transgender athletes, and also racially, by including students of color. In the early years of the project, almost no athletes of color volunteered to participate.

"Class and privilege also intersect with sports and visibility in different ways," Sheng writes in the book.

So he sought out more and more athletes. University LGBT centers started asking him to exhibit the photos and invited him to visit their campuses. The project snowballed. In the first three years of working on "Fearless," Sheng shot only 17 athletes. Between 2006 and 2007, he photographed almost twice as many, he writes.

Sheng's photos have now been been seen at more than 70 different venues, including the headquarters of Nike and ESPN, as well as select locations at the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 Summer Olympics. The visibility also led to his next project, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," for which he photographed closeted military service members. For his Stanford dissertation, he's following up with some of these subjects, interviewing and re-photographing them in order to document the inclusion of LGBT identities in the military.

In "Fearless," several athletes' portraits are paired with their own personal essays about struggling with their sexual orientation and how they came out to their team members and families. The book's epilogue is written by Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player.

Interwoven throughout "Fearless" is a timeline of significant moments in history for the LGBT sports community. The timeline offers readers context and perspective on how far things have come in the past century, but also serves as a reminder that most changes have occurred only in recent history.

The first date is in the 1920s, when Bill Tilden gained fame as a U.S. tennis champion only to be shunned years later when it was revealed that he was gay. The 1990s, when Sheng was growing up, include NBA star "Magic" Johnson's public announcement that he had HIV; the death by suicide of openly gay former professional soccer player Justin Fashanu; the coming out of former MLB player Billy Bean and the creation of Outsports.com: a website dedicated to sports news and information for gay sports fans and athletes.

As Sheng began his "Fearless" project in 2003, the NCAA began "sexual orientation issues in sports" training, available to member schools at no cost. Four years later, in 2007, the nation saw the first ex-NBA player come out as gay.

The timeline runs through 2015, with the penultimate event being Caitlyn Jenner, formerly gold medal Olympian decathlete Bruce Jenner, coming out publicly as a transgender woman. The last event on the timeline? The publishing of "Fearless."

What: Jeff Sheng discusses his new book, "Fearless: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes"

Where: Kissick Auditorium, Arrillaga Family Sports Center, 641 Campus Drive, Stanford

When: Tuesday, Nov. 17, 7 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to goo.gl/952Tyq or jeffsheng.com.

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