Rae, who joined the service after having already come out of the closet to family and friends, found it particularly difficult to be forced back in because of her career. She said this added to the isolation of experiencing life in the military as a minority twice over : as a black service member, and as a black female service member.
"I know the consequences of being out, being gay, and being a person of color in the military," she said. "I think you are definitely scrutinized a little bit more when you are a black woman in the military. You stand out as a black person and then as a woman."
Rae said her participation in the project came from a desire to speak out in some way while still protecting the military life she loves.
"I can't be completely out," she said. "I can't show my face. I can't reveal a lot of information. But I can say that I am a black woman. I am a young black woman. And I love the military and I love serving in the military and I hope to continue to do so. Someone has to speak out even if your face is hidden. Even if you take a photograph and the only thing we see are the rank insignias. The fact that you see someone from the Air Force or the Army or the Marines who is willing to be a part of this project says a lot and it makes you feel that you are not the only one."
Rae decided to reach out to Sheng when she spotted his book on a colleague's desk.
"I looked at the cover first and I opened it and I said 'Oh my God. That's me. The person on the cover is the same rank as I am.' And that picture just spoke volumes. Because that is how you feel when you are not able to be who you are."
The person on that cover was "Jess."
The cover image shows Jess in an airman uniform and combat boots. An all-American, chiseled Midwestern type sitting on the edge of a dark hotel room, curtains drawn. Sandy blond-red hair peeks out from his right hand, shielding his face. He is at once a paparazzi-chased celebrity, a scolded school boy sent to his room, and a modern Rodin's "Thinker."
He is alone.
Rae said she felt that the man on the cover was not just alone, but lonely.
"There was a sense of isolation," she said. "That you are the only one who is gay in the military. It definitely is frustration, isolation."
Jess, whose hidden visage, in person, glows with warmth and familiarity, said he too sees that sense of seclusion in his image ... an image which has gotten more attention than he bargained for.
"I think it represents loneliness. I think it represents a very lonely person who just wants to be open and honest ... there is nobody else there. Because we all have to hide it we can't tell each other. We can't support each other. It is not like the civilian world where somewhat of a gay and lesbian community comes around and helps everybody. It's not like that. We are all independent. We all stand on our own I guess... I think it feels dirty, more so than anything, like I am doing something wrong by being here or by getting my picture taken in a hotel room."
Jess says he is proud of the photo. He says he has no regrets.