More than 300 LGBT athletes featured in photo book
One gay photographer photographed over 300 LGBT college and high school athletes.
Jeff Sheng, once a closeted high school tennis player, just released the photography book and collection of memoirs “Fearless,” depicting numerous out LGBT athletes and their stories.
The 34 year-old photographer went to school in Boston where he grew up playing competitive tennis in high school.
“In my senior year of high school, I finally began to confront my own sexual orientation for the first time,” Sheng said in his memoir in the book. “I believed that being openly gay and being a competitive athlete were incompatible with each other.”
He said he quit tennis when he realized that the sports community wasn’t very welcoming of LGBT people, and in college at Harvard University, he took up photography.
“Photography was a way to mix my interests with social justice works and creativity,” he said.
In 2002, he photographed his first LGBT college athlete.
“I decided to do a photo series of LGBT students who are playing sports and coming out and doing something I’d never done,” he said. “It’s very weird to talk about it thirteen years later because I never anticipated the kind of growth the Fearless Project has.”
Lauren Neidigh, a 22-year-old director of media for Go Athletes!, a nonprofit for LGBT athletes across the country, was one of the first few people Sheng photographed.
Neidigh was an NCAA college swimmer for the University of Arizona. Her coming out story was one of four featured in the book in addition to Sheng’s.
“I had struggled as a college sophomore and a swimmer to embrace my lesbian identity and that put me in a dark place,” she said. “I stopped swimming a little bit. I couldn’t decide if I’d keep swimming or quit.”
Neidigh made the decision to transfer from the University of Florida to the University of Arizona in her junior year of college.
“Everybody was very supportive,” Neidigh said. “I was one of three out athletes on the team.”
Neidigh also described her story for OutSports. She ended up doing the photo shoot for Fearless after meeting Sheng at a Nike sports conference.
“I was kind of like, ‘Wow,’” she said. “That’s kind of a big deal to me to be able to tell my story and for Jeff to find value in sharing it with others. I felt like I was part of something that mattered.”
Sheng began exhibiting the project in 2006 at various high schools and colleges in the country. He said the series has been show at between two and three thousand high school and colleges.
“It was really powerful,” he said. “A lot for me as an artist is seeing what happens and seeing how it expands from there.”
Sheng came up with the idea for the book in 2012 on the project’s ten-year anniversary. He raised over $50,000 through a kick-starter campaign.
“It was the largest photography kick starter drive,” he said.
Sheng realized he didn’t want to just be a photography book for the coffee table, he said, so he decided to make it a collection of memoirs and a timeline of LGBT events starting with William Tilden, considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
Tilden won fourteen Major singles titles, including ten Grand Slams, one World Hard Count Championships and three Pro Slams in about the 1920s. He was shunned by the tennis community and media after being arrested twice for sexual misconduct with under-aged boys.
The timeline ends with stories referencing Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance in society.
Sheng also decided to have eight different covers for the book featuring LGBT athletes who represented different spectrums of the community with each cover a specific color from the original Pride flag.
“You can choose the athlete that resonates most strongly with your identity or sport or what you want sitting in your house or to give to someone,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful assembly of diversity that I’m really proud of.”
Sheng said the memoirs in the book also express diversity.
“There’s an openly transgender athlete playing volleyball, an out lesbian sharing her story about her own difficulties being a Division One swimmer, an athlete of color sharing his own stories about race and his struggle not feeling fully accepted,” he said.
The final story he said is of one athlete writing to another about giving him the strength and power to help him come out when he was on the track team at school.
“It was definitely a challenging format to work with,” he said. “I think that being an artist means always taking on risks and feeling like it’s okay to take on a challenge.”
The book, he said, he hopes will make an impact on people.
“What I really wanted was for someone today to hold onto this book and save it and leave it in their bookshelf for decades,” he said. “In time, their children will see it and see how far we’ve come as a society.”
The books can be found on FearlessBookStore.com along with Fearless merchandise. The proceeds for the book go directly back into the project.
“One of the reasons why I didn’t ever stop photographing the project was because they always say photograph something you’re inspired by or you gained something from,” Sheng said. “These athletes came out on a sports team and continue to play sports regardless of the discrimination they faced.”
Sheng is also currently working on projects dealing with transgender people in the military and LGBT teen suicide. On his website, you can view his series from 2009 to 2011 on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Neidigh offers this advice for closeted high school and college athletes.
“Just remember that it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “You’re not going to see them again. You can’t live by the book because someone else is making the rules. You just have to do what you want.”