A different type of athlete is occupying the halls of Gregory Gym this week. They do not move or speak, but they still have the ability to stop the occasional passerby in their tracks.
These portraits of athletes make up the “Fearless” exhibition, a photography collection by California native Jeff Sheng. Each of the athletes in the photos identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender. The UT Center for Diversity and Community Engagement sponsored the exhibit to engage students and bring attention to homophobia and discrimination in university and high school athletics, Center for Diversity and Engagement officials said.
Sheng said he was inspired to create the project after realizing how hard it was to be open about his sexuality on his high school tennis team. He discovered many of his LGBT friends in athletics had been in the same situation and decided to take on the project after his graduation from Harvard University.
It took Sheng nearly three years to find enough athletes willing to have their picture taken and turn them into a collection. Sheng launched the collection in 2006 with a very unusual approach. Instead of featuring the portraits in a museum or studio, Sheng displayed his photos in school gyms, common areas, dormitories and places with a lot of foot traffic.
Sheng said the most gratifying part of his shows was witnessing strangers reactions when they first see the portraits and realize the athletics identify as LGBT.
“When you look at these images you’re reminded of friends of yours or reminded or family members,” Sheng said. “The photos remind you that people in the LGBT community are the same people you see everyday and they deserve the respect you give anyone.”
Sheng has photographed more than 130 athletes in universities and high schools across the country.
Recently, Sheng gained media attention before the repeal of the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy for his photo collection of LGBT soldiers who were hiding their sexuality.
Ana Rosal, Director of the Center for Diversity and Community Engagement, said the center sponsored the exhibit because they saw it as a new way for people to address LGBT issues in the athletic community on their own time while at the gym.
Rosal said she hopes the exhibition breaks the stereotype of what a traditional athlete looks like and encourages dialogues for diversity.
“I think there are some people who are LGBT identified and athletic but feel like it’s not safe for them to come out on their teams,” Rosal said.
Alexandra Messenger, studio art and women’s gender studies senior, said she had the same reaction Sheng has seen many times. She stopped and stared and felt amazed at the sheer number of LGBT athletes Sheng had photographed.
Messenger said she hopes the portraits would affect other students in the same way.
“I do think that besides having the Gender and Sexuality Center, UT is still very conservative, especially in athletics,” Messenger said.
“Fearless” will be on display for six weeks in Gregory Gym.