Jess, or at least the photo of him, has become something of an icon for the life gay soldiers lead under the current policy. And his emerging iconic status has been noticed by some with the power to take away his military life.
"I got a call the other day," Jess said, "from my Chief. They didn't directly say that they knew about everything that has been going on in the past few months. But they indirectly reminded me to um ... look at a few regulations."
Jess was directed to review the policy, mandated in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, that bars anyone who demonstrates "a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the armed forces.
According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, more than 14,000 service members have been discharged under the law since 1994. And the Williams Institute, a gay advocacy think tank affiliated with UCLA Law, issued a study estimating 65,000 closeted service members continue to serve under "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT).
Jess likens the fight to repeal DADT to the civil rights movement.
"In the military you have to learn tolerance. In the military there is no middle ground. I mean, we serve with everybody... When Truman put African Americans into the military and said it was ok for African Americans to serve, people brought up the exact same issues that they do now. You know, unit cohesion: is a white guy going to go save a black soldier or or is a black soldier going to go save his white counterpart? It is the exact same argument that they made in the sixties that they are making now. Obviously, we have African Americans; we have everyone serving in the military. What's the big deal?"
Despite the current climate, though, Jess loves military life. His only complaint, he says, is having to hide who he is.
"I feel like it's a very conservative America. If you don't talk about it then it's okay. As long as no one knows."
In fact,a 2010 ABC News/Washington Post Poll shows that "even conservatives and Republicans widely accept homosexuals serving in the armed forces even if they 'tell'." And 75 percent say gays who do disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve, unchanged from 2008, but up from 44 percent 17 years ago.
Asked what he would say to someone who refuses to hide anymore?
"I wish I were you," Jess said. "I wish I had that much courage because that is hard. I have a lot of admiration for somebody if they are willing to do that."
"Matt" was willing.
Matt's real name is Sergeant Anthony Bustos.
Anthony is a native Texan. Anthony is 24. Anthony is an eight year service member. Anthony has done two tours in Iraq.
Anthony watched his two best friends in the army die when an IED hit their Humvee in 2005.
Anthony is gay.
"I think about them very day," Bustos said, remembering his friends who did not come home. "I feel like I might have cheated them of knowing the real me because I was afraid to come out to them and they died not knowing the real me, who I was completely. And I feel every day that I should have told them. I know they know now. I still talk to them and I still pray for them and everything, I just feel like we didn't get to talk about a part of me that was an essential part."
Bustos, like all the service members Sheng has photographed, says he loves the military. He is leaving because of "don't ask, don't tell."