‘Fearless’ Exhibit Examines Openly Gay Student-Athletes

The photographs hang in a hallway on the ground floor of Gregory Gym—a corridor walked daily by thousands of students hurrying to and from the weight room, volleyball court, or the track.

Glossy, big, and high-contrast, the photos draw curious passers-by in for a closer look.

And once you look, it’s hard to look away. Each portrays a young athlete in the act of playing a sport, or just after finishing a workout. They stand on the basketball court, the baseball field, atop a diving board, on a track. All look straight into the camera with fierce, resolute stares that command attention. But though the photos pull you in, nothing about them is unusual. The subjects could be any student-athletes at UT.

Since 2003, artist Jeff Sheng has photographed more than 130 college and high school student-athletes for “Fearless.” All of his subjects are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

“I think what is most powerful about the photographs is that they look like somebody you know,” Sheng says. “Because the people in the photographs look so familiar, if anything people who are homophobic get scared. Homophobia is about making LGBT “the Other,” different, abnormal. But when you see the photos, you think, ‘These people are normal. They look like anybody else, and they deserve the same respect as anybody else.’”

Sheng says “Fearless” was inspired by his own athletic experience. “I played tennis in high school, when I was closeted. I eventually came out in college, but I stopped playing on the tennis team. I kind of wish I had kept playing. But it just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t figure out how to be both openly gay and an athlete. More and more young people today, though, are figuring it out.”

“Fearless” has visited more than 40 college and high school campuses across the U.S. and Canada. The photos are always displayed in highly trafficked public spaces, usually gyms or student centers—a choice Sheng says is very deliberate. “It’s important that you don’t have to go out of your way to see the photos,” he says. “Anybody can see them.”

UT senior Alex Messenger was at the exhibit opening Thursday night in Gregory Gym. “Athletics have not always been the most welcoming to LGBT student-athletes,” she says. “So I think these photos are important, because they put a real face on gay identity and sports. They challenge stereotypes of what LGBT people look like.”

The exhibit, sponsored by the Gender & Sexuality Center in the Division for Diversity and Community Engagement, runs until *Nov. 14.

*An earlier version of this story stated that the exhibit would close on Oct. 31. Its run has been extended.

Photos by Jeff Sheng


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