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'Fearless' LGBT athletes who were out years before Jason Collins and Michael Sam




Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003. "I instructed Aaron to run lines and get as tired as possible," recounts Jeff Sheng. "When I looked at my contact sheets, I knew I had the first photograph that I would use for 'Fearless.'"
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Lauren, Basketball, Mount Holyoke College, 2005. "There were almost no athletes of color volunteering to be part of the project," recounts Jeff Sheng in "Fearless." "Class and privilege also intersected with sports and visibility in different ways."
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Alyssa, track and field and volleyball, Whittier College, 2012. Alyssa passed away in 2013, and in "Fearless," her friend Jordan Vega writes, "She helped me become the athlete and activists that I wanted to become. ... Alyssa was and is the true embodiment of fearless."
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Lauren, Swimming, University of Arizona, 2014. "Being an athlete added extra pressure to coming out of the closet because I feared teammates might start to look at me differently," says Lauren in Jeff Sheng's "Fearless." "People throw around some really hateful words without realizing what they're doing."
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Adrian, lacrosse, Cal Poly Pomona, 2005. After his shoot, Adrian told photographer Jeff Sheng, "When I looked at your photographs, I saw for the first time others who I felt were similar to me. It was comforting to know that there were other gay athletes out there who were proud of who they were."
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Photographer Jeff Sheng as a high school athlete in 1996. He recalls a time when, while he was closeted, an elder teammate came out and decided to stop playing. "I remember some of the younger guys on the team saying that they were glad, since they didn't want a gay guy on the team with them. One of them even joked how 'he probably had AIDS anyway.'"
Jeff Sheng
Aaron, Squash, Brown University, 2003.
Photographer Jeff Sheng in 2015, recreating his high school tennis photo. "I realized that I was never able to be an out athlete," he writes in "Fearless," "but I wanted to recognize others who could."
Jeff Sheng


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When a professional athlete comes out as LGBT, big headlines follow, with the media asking questions like, "Could this person change the way we forever think about who can play sports?"

It happened with Jason Collins, Michael Sam, Britney Griner, Tom Daley and more.

But a new book shows that it's the wrong kind of question — and has been for while.

There are thousands of LGBT college and high school athletes in America who've already paved the way for acceptance on their teams.

Photographer Jeff Sheng spent the past 13 years taking their portraits and gathering their stories, now compiled in his new book, "Fearless".

"I actually struggled with my own sexual orientation throughout high school," he says.

Sheng was a former tennis player and he recalls that in 1996, when he was still closeted, an older teammate came out but decided to stop playing.

"I remember some of the younger guys on the team saying that they were glad, since they didn't want a gay guy on the team with them," he recounts in "Fearless". "One of them even joked how 'he probably had AIDS anyway.'"

"Fearless" began as a college photography project to confront his past.

"I realized that I was never able to be an out athlete," he writes, "but I wanted to recognize others who could."

Over the years, he got a lot of positive responses to his work. 

"When I looked at your photographs, I saw for the first time others who I felt were similar to me," said subject Adrian, a lacrosse player from Cal Poly Pomona in 2005. "It was comforting to know that there were other gay athletes out there who were proud of who they were."

Sheng also recalls when his work was on display at the student union of the University of Florida in 2006. The organizers were worried that the photographs would be vandalized by passersby.

But instead, Sheng says he saw people who were surprised and respectful.

"You could see this moment on their face of, 'Oh my goodness, they're all part of the LGBT community,'" he remembers. "The biggest shock for them was that they looked like every other athlete."

In the past two years, Sheng has noticed the acceptance of LGBT athlete swell to unprecedented levels – he believes that the environment is so welcoming, now, that an athlete from a storied team like UCLA football could soon come out to fanfare.

"What the book actually captures is the moment before all that happens."

Even after the book's publication, however, Sheng plans to continue to photograph student-athletes from all over the country as part of FearlessProject.org.

"There's a new generation out there," he says, "and they can be just as inspiring as the people from 10 years ago."



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