The Camera in the Closet: Gay Service Members Speak Out to ABC News About Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Men and women who are portrayed in book on closeted gay soldiers speak out.

April 22, 2010, 11:55 AM

May 25, 2010— -- An estimated 65,000 closeted gay service members currently serve in the U.S. military. And a few of them, together with photographer Jeff Sheng, are leaving that closet door ajar as part of Sheng's project "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a portrait series of military personnel affected by the law banning homosexual men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military.

In each of the images, the subject's identities are obscured. Shadows obfuscate. Hands cover faces. Backs face the onlooker.

A door frame covers a profile.

Each photograph is titled by a first name -- a pseudonym -- and a location significant to the framed figure. They are themselves -- in hiding.

ABC New's Bob Woodruff sat down exclusively with Sheng and four of his subjects, two of whom appear in Sheng's book "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Vol. 1." The other two will appear in the subsequent edition of the book, due out this fall, following an exhibition at the Kaycee Olsen Gallery in Culver City, Calif.

They all love the military. They all serve the United States. They all want to take a stand. And one, known as "Matt," has decided to speak out to ABC News, leaving the military -- and the closet -- behind him.

"Samuel" had a surprising experience when he joined the service. He found a niche with other soldiers where he felt comfortable being himself. Samuel wasn't scared, at first.

"Initially it was really easy," he said. "There were a lot of openly gay people. And the entire chain of command knew it and nobody cared. I knew the rest of the military wasn't like that and I was just lucky that one time, my first time."

Samuel has been on two deployments, and now back at a base in the U.S., he fears discovery by his current colleagues. If detected, Samuel could be discharged, forced to repay educational costs, and could lose his health insurance.

Health insurance is particularly important for Samuel.

He is HIV positive.

"I think about it every day," he said. "I mean, am I going to get in trouble? Am I going to get outed? Is somebody going to find something or interpret something? And the next thing you know I am going to have to give explanations and lose everything? I think about it all the time. It's worse than being in high school."

Samuel said he does not worry about himself as much as he worries about generations to come.

"They need to not live in fear the way that I do every day," he said. "If one person changes their mind based on this project, it will be worth it."

Samuel says he loves his work. He believes in his work. The only aspect of military life Samuel does not believe in is the current law.

"I believe in putting on this uniform every day," he said.

Unlike Samuel, "Rae" has never let a fellow soldier know she is gay. In a committed relationship for several years, Rae wears a "promise ring" on her left ring finger.

Rae says she often gets asked about her personal life.

"They ask questions: 'Where's your husband?' 'Do you have a boyfriend?' And sometimes I just really want to say, 'I have a partner who is a woman.' And I really want to be able to take her to different functions that we have on base."

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."

'Someone Has to Speak Out, Even if Your Face is Hidden'

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."

'What's the Big Deal?'

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.

But at first, Jess did not bank on being the "cover boy," as Samuel puts it, or on having his photo in TIME magazine or in the New York Times, both of which have featured Jess' image.

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.

Out of the Closet and Out of the Service

"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."

"If the policy was changed, I would like to re-enlist into the military," he said. "I like the core structure of it. I like the core values. I think they are great values. I love the structure of everything, how everything has a set time, the uniformity of everything. I am very much a military brat and I thrive under stress and under pressure and all that and I love it. I love the physical aspect, the mental aspect, everything. But right now, as far as my conscience goes I cannot continue to serve under this policy."

He says he has no hard feelings toward his fellow soldiers or his superiors.

"When you get injured over there you don't get injured because you are gay or because you are straight or because you are white or you're black or you're Hispanic. It is because you are a U.S. soldier, or an airman, or U.S. Navy personnel. Everybody is doing their service over there and they are doing it very, very well and I have the utmost respect for everyone over there."

Bustos says he understands he is taking a chance by openly violating the policy and coming out on national television. He is willing to take that chance.

"I am violating 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he said, "And I understand if [my Commander] has to, he has to take the proceedings he does, because it is something he has to do. I am willing to take responsibility for this, I am willing to take anything that comes my way through this ... it will be for a better cause and hopefully it might change or be something in the process to change the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."

Bustos felt compelled to come out to the military and to the world, but he had not yet come out to his own mother.

"I believe my mom will be shocked," Bustos said."But she loves me unconditionally. I trust her... but I also love her so much that I will give her space to react emotionally in whatever way she needs to. "

Anthony said he does not seek fame, or a place in history. He wants people to see the face of gay soldiers."I am here to give a voice and a face and to humanize something that seems so inhuman," he said. "I want this subject to be important right now."

Right after his interview, Bustos called his mom in Texas.

"She was very supportive," he said. "She was great."

Jeff Sheng started his "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" project at the direct behest of service members who contacted him after "Fearless," his series featuring out, gay student athletes gained national attention.

At 29, Sheng recalls his experience coming out of the closet as an undergraduate at Harvard. As hard as approaching his family was for Sheng, he knows it is in some ways more difficult for the subjects in this series. Sheng says the project has kept him up some nights.

"I realized it was a risk," he said. "I thought long and hard about working on a project like this."

Sheng says he hopes the images he creates will in some way highlight not just the differences between closeted service members and their straight counterparts, but also will emphasize their commonality.

"I think photographs have the power to move people that sometimes words don't," Sheng said. "And you look at these images and what you see is that people who are gay or lesbian who are closeted look very similar, the same, as people you would assume to be straight. And that's a powerful message."

Sheng said the reaction to the project has moved him. He describes many of the e-mails he receives as "heartbreaking."

Sheng has shot over 40 subjects. He hopes to produce about 20 more images in the coming months and perhaps many more after that. He says although he is an artist, his first priority for the series is trust.

The photos are taken digitally. And subjects have full veto power.

Sheng says Jess' experience in particular gives him pause.

"I know that photograph has put him at risk," Sheng said. "I know that people in the military know that it is him. I don't know how I feel about that. I am incredibly bothered at times that that is part of the situation."

But any apprehensions Sheng has are overwhelmed by a feeling of hope.

"There has also been a sense of pride," Sheng said. "There is this sense of, 'I am standing up. I am being who I am in this image.'"

Jeff Sheng is currently working on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Volume 2." His photographs will be featured in the Kaycee Olsen Gallery in Culver City, California in September.

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