09/19/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' One Year Later: We Can't Go Back (PHOTOS)

Jeff Sheng

Almost one year ago, on Sept. 20, 2011, the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" officially ended. After a lengthy series of presidential promises, congressional votes, policy reviews, and Pentagon studies, gay men and women could finally serve openly in the United States Armed Forces.

Although I am not and never have been in the military, the end of "don't ask, don't tell" affected my career as an artist. For almost three years, from January 2009 until September 2011, I carried out a project photographing closeted servicemembers who could not reveal their faces and identities in these photographs. If they did, they risked losing their jobs by being kicked out of the military.

It was a project that took me across 30 states. I met over 90 different servicemembers who welcomed me into their lives. These strangers spoke to me and trusted that the images recorded on my camera would not cause them harm. The weight of their lives became so crushing for me that near the end of it, I suffered from anxiety attacks and health problems.

At each visit, these servicemembers shared agonizing stories about hiding away their longtime partners from everyone around them, and they confessed their intimate fears about dying at war without ever being able to come out to friends and family. I sensed the despair and suicidal tendencies that come with having to lie about oneself at all times while fighting for one's country. The photo shoots were actually the most difficult: I was forcing myself to create touching but disturbing images that denied each servicemember's face and identity -- in essence, his or her humanity -- to the world.

In those final months before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," I stopped looking at the photographs I was taking. Although I did over 30 new photo shoots for the series in 2011, I didn't review any of these images afterwards. When I returned home, I put the memory cards from my digital camera into a shoebox and placed them in my dresser. The pain was just too overwhelming for me to experience again on my computer screen.

But recently, I was reminded of the power and significance contained in those images. It was just last week, when two Republican U.S. senators introduced legislation to keep same-sex marriage ceremonies off military bases. I was in shock that there was pending legislation to reenact a form of discrimination based on sexual orientation back into our armed forces.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be the wedding photographer for one of these military-base same-sex marriages, the union of Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens, whom I had previously photographed for my Don't Ask, Don't Tell photo series. The contrast between those images -- one from 2010, with their faces turned and hidden in shadow, and one from this past June, depicting their wedding on a military base -- has been a constant reminder of the type of progress that makes me hopeful for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in this country, and for our nation as a whole.

However, progress is not always guaranteed to be a continuous, linear movement forward. Just as we saw with the economy in the last decade, the wrong leadership can set any movement horrendously backwards. And the stakes for the LGBT community in this next presidential election have never been so clearly delineated. We have one candidate who has arguably been the most active champion for LGBT rights of any sitting president, and another candidate who seems quite eager to hand over control to a right-wing Tea Party movement whose stances on social issues are not just problematic for the LGBT community but for women, communities of color, immigrants, students, unions, and the working class.

It is crucial that we remember this in November.

So I finally decided to look at the photographs of closeted servicemembers I took last year, the ones I'd previously tucked away in a shoebox. I wanted to see again what history looked like -- and what the future might look like if we were to return to it. I'm not saying that a Romney administration would actively fight to reinstate "don't ask, don't tell," but when you elect politicians who oppose equal rights for me simply because I identify as part of the LGBT community, you can't be sure of what you may get. And I should remind you that many of these people would like nothing more than to rewind my rights back to the prehistoric Reagan years.

In that spirit I want to share with you, here on The Huffington Post, 15 new images from my Don't Ask, Don't Tell project that have never been released publicly. They aren't even on my website, nor do they have titles yet. I didn't even look at them for over a year after taking them. But I wanted to share these photographs with you now so that you can also see what the past -- and hopefully only the past -- looks like. In November we need to make sure that the right leaders are elected so that we can guarantee that our future will forever look different from these images.

It's been a year since the official repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Let's hope this country will keep moving forward, and that this anniversary, a huge milestone for LGBT rights, will be celebrated many times over.


'Don't Ask, Don't Tell': One Year Ago

Jeff Sheng is an artist and photographer. In addition to his photo series Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he created the Fearless Project, a photo and video project showcasing out LGBT high-school and college athletes. He is also a current Point Foundation Scholar as a doctoral student in sociology at Stanford University, researching and writing about sexuality in the U.S. military and LGBT social movements.