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.

ByABC News
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."