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Photos of gay service members make statement about policy

By Chuck Conder, CNN
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Gays in the military: Portraits without faces
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photographer says idea for project came from the soldiers, sailors and Marines themselves
  • The photo exhibit "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" conveys the stories of gay U.S. military members
  • Exhibit comes as controversial policy is being challenged in the courts
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(CNN) -- A soldier and his shadow sit alone on wrinkled sheets. With his knees pressed tightly up against his chest, he wraps his arms around his legs and bows his head.

In another photo, a soldier stands before a mirror. His raised hand covers just enough of his reflection to protect his anonymity.

But it's not photographer Jeff Sheng from whom these men are hiding their identities.

It's the military.

Sheng's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exhibit, two years in the making, conveys the stories of the gay and bisexual men and women who serve in the U.S. military. And because his subjects are forced to keep their sexual orientations under wraps in order to serve, Shen's photos are portraits without faces.

The Los Angeles, California-based artist said many of his subjects were grateful for the opportunity to make a statement "without fully revealing themselves and losing their jobs."

"If this person got outed, they would lose their pension, their retirement benefits -- their 20 years of service in the military would be gone," he said.

Sheng asked many of those he photographed why they continue to serve despite the inequality.

"I asked, 'Why do you still serve with this policy in place? Why would you do it?' " Sheng said. "And they all looked at me and said, 'Because it's serving the country. It's the most honorable thing that I can think of doing right now in my life.' "

Sheng is also the creator of "Fearless," photographs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered high school and college athletes who are public about their sexual identities. He is working on a project focusing on undocumented Americans.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" photos were exhibited last week in Washington at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters, and Sheng said he hopes to bring them next to Chicago, Illinois.

The exhibit couldn't have been unveiled at a more relevant time.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to suspend enforcement temporarily of "don't ask, don't tell." Though a lower court has deemed the law unconstitutional, the controversial policy will remain in effect until the appeals process is complete.

President Obama is on record favoring abolition of the policy but has said he wants the issue to be decided by Congress, not in the courts.

The new commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, opposes repeal of the policy. "There is a risk involved," Amos told reporters in San Diego, California. "I'm tring to determine how to measure that risk. This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness."

Ryan Vincent Downing, a former Air Force captain and one of the 60 service members Sheng photographed, said he has confidence "that people in the military can handle change." He is no longer in the service and said hiding his sexuality took a toll.

"I found myself making up lies, and then making up more lies to cover the lies I had told before," Downing said.

Sheng said he hopes his photographs open eyes to the way the "don't ask, don't tell" policy affects closeted service members who are fighting and dying for their country.

"This idea that they're hiding, in many ways ... they can't reveal who they are," Sheng said. "[It] has a really profound effect on the way that people see these images and think about the issue."

 
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