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The OutField: Fearless photos of Gay athletes
The OutField: Fearless photos of Gay athletes
by Dan Woog - SGN Contributing Writer

The athletes stand strongly, staring straight ahead.

Scott, the cross-country team captain from Wisconsin's Madison West High School, is shirtless, glistening with sweat in the woods following a workout.

Cynthia, the heavily padded softball catcher at the University of Pennsylvania, breathes heavily after an afternoon spent squatting and throwing.

Greg, the soccer captain at Auburn High School in Massachusetts, cools down after working out on a humid day, his ball, water bottle, and bag at his feet.

All three look confident, as athletes should. They know who they are; they feel comfortable in their own skin.

But getting to this point - posing for the camera - has not been easy. They - and 52 other athletes on the website www.fearlesscampustour.org - are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender. Now the world knows it, too.

The site is the brainchild of Jeff Sheng. The young photographer has spent five years assembling "Fearless." He's crisscrossed the country, tracking down and shooting openly GLBT athletes who play on high school or college sports teams. The results are displayed on the internet, and in exhibitions at colleges, high schools, and fitness centers around the nation.

Gay athletes are close to Sheng's heart. Ten years ago, he was one of them. A tennis player good enough to compete on the Southern California junior circuit, he nonetheless felt constricted by homophobia. He stopped playing as a high school senior - even though he'd been voted captain by his teammates.

"It was always there in the background," Sheng says of the conflicts he felt between his sexuality and his sport. "Our team was pretty macho. They made fun of a rival coach who was a little flamboyant. As a 17-year-old, that was challenging to me." He quit the team - and tennis altogether - though he now plays in a Gay league.

At Harvard University, he met Mike Crosby, an "incredibly closeted" water polo player. They dated for a while, though having to pretend to be "a friend of a friend" to attend Crosby's games wore on Sheng. Crosby later came out - so far out, in fact, that he appeared on the cover of Genre magazine.

Sheng planned on being a civil-rights attorney, but courses in film and photography helped him realize the power of media to influence society. Crosby's intercollegiate water polo experience - and Sheng's own with high school tennis - gave Sheng the idea of photographing openly Gay athletes.

"It was a great concept," he says. "But it was very hard to execute."

A major problem was finding subjects. First, he had to get the word out; then he had to convince them to participate. After that came the issue of traveling all over the United States to photograph them in their athletic milieus.

"It's one thing to find someone. But it's a huge step to get them to agree to be photographed," Sheng says. "They can't be anonymous anymore. There's no invisibility. Your name, your school, and your sport are all out there."

It was a frustrating process. In 2004, he went nine months without a shot. But gradually he amassed 55 photos. His goal is 100.

Sheng does not turn anyone down. Many athletes are not classically good-looking. The result is a focus on the body and the sport, rather than a close-up portrait. "Each person is incredibly attractive in some way or another," he explains. "I try to accentuate the most beautiful part. I'll light things a certain way, or use the setting to their best advantage."

A hallmark of Sheng's style is an honest look into the camera lens. "When you're first out, you often think everyone's looking at you," he says. "You break their stare by looking back. It's important for them to give me that same confident, self-assured look."

It helps that he takes his photos after his subjects have worked out. "They have a great glow then," he says. "Sometimes just working out can be very liberating."

Getting the perfect shot takes time. Sheng spends hours with his subjects, understanding who they are and how they've gotten to that point in life. He takes at least 100 photos, and hopes they appreciate the one he selects. He is thrilled when they thank him for providing the opportunity to participate.

Sheng is delighted with the current generation of out athletes, and amazed by the potential of photography to influence others. "If you're 16 or 17 years old and struggling, and you see 55 out athletes staring back at you, that can be incredibly empowering." It is a feeling Jeff Sheng never had as a high school tennis player - but one he is proud to pass along, a decade later, to others.

Athletes interested in being photographed can send an e-mail to jeffshseng@jeffsheng.com.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the Jocks series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
 

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