Will was born outside of Chicago in 1976. His mother was a teacher. His father, a Marine-turned-fundamentalist-minister, spent most of the year on the road through his work with Fairhaven Baptist church in Chesterton, Ind. Will’s father was its youth pastor and vice president of the church’s small Christian college. He attended Fairhaven Baptist College, earning a degree in pastoral theology and music. He married his wife, a childhood friend and college classmate in 1998. Then they moved to New Jersey so Will could pursue a career in business. They had two children. (Picture: Jeff Sheng, “Fearless” project exhibition, Drew School (High School), 2009)
Erwynn Umali was born in the Philippines in 1977. When he was 5, his family immigrated to a suburb of San Diego. His parents gave their three sons and a daughter rhyming names: Alwynn, Erwynn, Jerwynn, and Sherwynn. They raised the children as strict Catholics with traditional Filipino family values. In 1998 Erwynn entered the Air Force. Erwynn loved the camaraderie and the knowledge that he was serving his country. Two years later, he married his wife, a fellow airman. They had two sons.
In 2005, while stationed in Korea, Erwynn split from his wife. Both of them say that the divorce was unrelated to his sexuality. Erwynn asked to be stationed at McGuire-Dix in New Jersey in order to be closer to his sons, who were living in Maryland at the time. In 2006, still recovering from his divorce and looking to join a community, he accepted a co-worker’s invitation to visit Solid Rock Baptist Church. The congregation seemed friendly and appreciated his military service. He felt valued.
The two grooms share a moment in a side room of the base chapel before their wedding ceremony. Photo by Jeff Sheng
Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali (right) and Will Behrens (left) at the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst chapel, where their civil union was held on June 23, 2012. See more photos of their wedding and lives here. Photo by Jeff Sheng
Erwynn and Will get ready to pray in their dining room before they eat a home-cooked dinner of baked ziti. Photo by Jeff Sheng
Will and Erwynn enter the reception room after the ceremony through the honor guard saber arch. Photo by Jeff Sheng
Husband and husband enjoy their first dance. Photo by Jeff Sheng
Erwynn thought that by going to a church that preached against homosexuality, he could convince himself he wasn’t gay. He thought Solid Rock could give him the structure and resolve to stay straight. Instead, as anti-gay messages rang from the pulpit, Erwynn’s eyes wandered to the third row on the left side. There, they fell on an attractive young man: the choir director.
Will and Erwynn were introduced by a mutual friend at church. Over the course of a few years, they became friends. Erwynn was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, working with the provincial reconstruction team. He handled convoy communications and driving Humvees. He was also a gunner. During his deployment, the two men grew closer, staying in touch through email and text messages. Later that year, when Erwynn returned home, they were confused and distressed about their feelings for each other. Will had already felt distance brewing in his marriage. Now, on top of that, he was attracted to Erwynn. Each man wondered whether the other felt the same way. Will, fearing disappointment, began to cool to Erwynn’s friendship. “This is never going to happen,” he told himself.
A church retreat saved them. The all-male, two-day trip, featuring softball, paintball, and thrice-daily preaching sessions, was supposed to promote fellowship. It gave Will and Erwynn quality time together. They felt closer and more bonded. They began testing the waters with flirtatious emails. Will worried about being separated from his children if he left his wife to pursue a relationship with Erwynn. “I still want my kids,” Will thought, “but I know I’m slowly falling in love with a man.”
Erwynn’s final attempt to straighten himself out, a second marriage to a woman from Solid Rock collapsed in 2009 after only a few months. That’s when Will and Erwynn admitted their feelings to each other and began a romantic relationship. Will knew what he wanted, but the price was enormous. He would lose not only his marriage, but also likely his parents, siblings, and all of his Baptist friends. Erwynn stopped attending Solid Rock, knowing the congregants would be appalled by his relationship with Will. Members of the congregation encouraged Will to cut off his friendship with Erwynn, since Erwynn had rejected the church.
The secrecy of the relationship began to wear on Will. He started to make excuses for not attending church. This left the congregation without a choir director and raised red flags, in the community and with his wife, that something was wrong. On Feb. 17, 2010, when Will came home from work, all of the lights in his house were on. He saw several familiar cars parked out front. His father, who lived two hours away, was waiting for him in the street.
Terror mounted in Will as he walked into his living room with his father. There, he found his wife, three pastors from the church, and one of the pastors’ wives. Will backed into a corner as the others sat around him. After an opening prayer and a heavy silence, one of the pastors turned to Will. “I don’t know how else to say this,” he prefaced. “Is there something going on with you and Erwynn?”
Will told the truth. “Yes,” he said. His wife jumped up and ran out of the room, followed by the pastor’s wife. Will knew what was coming next: They would try to “cure” him and save his marriage. But he was done pretending. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said. He walked out of the house and got into his car. The group chased him down the block and called him on his phone, urging him to come back to the house. Instead, he drove away. He texted Erwynn: “I’m coming home.”
When it became clear that Will was not coming back to his family, his parents stopped talking to him. He heard nothing from his immediate or extended family. He felt disowned. He had never been without a church. He felt he couldn’t seek out new friends or share with anyone at work what he was going through because that could cast suspicion on Erwynn.
Will struggled through a difficult divorce and custody disputes. He cried himself to sleep over losing his kids and alienating his community. Having followed Baptist teachings his whole life, he began to explore what it meant to form opinions on his own. He volunteered as a pianist for McGuire-Dix functions and got to know more of Erwynn’s colleagues as his “friend.”
On Dec. 15, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill repealing DADT. Three days later, the Senate concurred. President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 22, 2010. The repeal’s implementation was delayed, but in the summer of 2011, knowing that the end of hiding was only a few months away, Will got down on one knee and proposed to Erwynn.
Will and Erwynn moved out of their one-bedroom apartment and now live in an immaculately tidy three-bedroom townhouse decorated with dark wood furniture sets and brown and teal accents. They live 20 minutes from McGuire-Dix, in a subdivision where the houses look identical and the streets have floral names. Many military families live here, but it’s easy to pick out Will and Erwynn’s house: It has the most American flags.
Two of the three bedrooms are permanent kids’ rooms: one for the three boys, the other for Will’s daughter. All four children primarily live with their mothers out of state, but it’s clear Will and Erwynn live for their kids, sharing stories about what they are up to and activities the family does together when the kids are visiting. Every vacation day they have is spent with the children. Erwynn’s kids have taken to calling Will’s cellphone to chat with him. Erwynn’s ex-wife raves about how much Will loves his kids, and hers.
Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_wedding/2012/07/erwynn_umali_and_will_behrens_the_first_gay_wedding_on_a_military_base_.6.html (By Katherine Goldstein)
Jeff Sheng (born 1980, California) is an American artist and photographer. He was a visiting guest professor of photography at Harvard University in 2011. He taught as a visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara for the departments of Studio Art and Asian American studies between 2007-2012.
Sheng's photography work has been described as "historic" in capturing the social progress experienced by the LGBT community in the United States in the early 21st century.
His 2009-2011 photography series "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" documented almost 100 closeted LGBT United States military service members affected by the Don't ask, don't tell policy, that forbid United States military service members from openly identifying as gay or lesbian. Sheng's photographs of these closeted service members were widely published and reported on by the media during the Congressional repeal of the policy between 2010-2011, including in TIME Magazine, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, ABC World News, CBS Evening News, NPR, and the BBC News; and his photographs were extensively circulated among service members, military officials in the Pentagon, as well as members of Congress during the repeal process. Commenting about Sheng’s work, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts wrote, “There is something sharply poignant in these images of those who do dangerous work most of us never have, make sacrifices most of us never will, yet are forced to hide their faces for fear of what it would mean if we knew who they are... The result was this stirring work that has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to CNN to the BBC.”
On June 23, 2012, Sheng photographed, as the official wedding photographer, the civil union of Will Behrens and air force service member Erwynn Umali. This was the first public same-sex wedding ceremony held on a United States military base and officiated by a military chaplain, since the official repeal of Don't ask, don't tell on September 20, 2011. The male couple had previously been photographed in 2010 as part of Sheng's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" photography series.
Sheng first became known for his photographic project "Fearless", a series of portraits of athletes on high school and college sports teams who also openly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Sheng began the project in 2003, and by 2012, the series had over 150 portraits of athletes from the United States and Canada. Sheng has exhibited the project at over fifty colleges and high schools across the United States. "Fearless" has also been exhibited at the headquarters of sports media network ESPN, the 2009 LGBT Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, and Nike World Headquarters.
For the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sheng released a 10-minute video slideshow of "Fearless" that was exhibited at Pride House 2012 as part of the London Olympics, which marked the debut of the project in Great Britain.
In August 2008, Sheng collaborated with former N.B.A. basketball player and fellow activist John Amaechi in Beijing, China during the 2008 Summer Olympics, on a blog in partnership with Amnesty International. Amaechi utilized Sheng's knowledge of Mandarin and previous experience as an American exchange student in Beijing to get behind the scenes in many situations and to gather candid interviews with local people and Olympic athletes.
In 2004, Sheng photographed Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto for The New York Times Magazine for an in-depth article written by David J. Garrow about the struggle over the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and the United States.
Sheng attended Harvard University and studied under the mentorship of British photographer and Harvard professor Chris Killip in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department. For his senior thesis submitted to Harvard in 2002 for his BA degree, Sheng created a small photo album titled "Thesis Album," consisting of sixty 4" by 6" photographs of his personal same-sex relationship from college, with just half a page of writing. His senior thesis was awarded a Latin honors grade of summa cum laude, nominated for a Thomas T. Hoopes, Class of 1919, Prize, and Sheng was given the College's Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts by then President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers. In 2002 and 2003, Sheng interned for gallery owner and art curator WM Hunt (Bill Hunt) in New York City, and then briefly assisted for the celebrity/fashion photographer Greg Gorman in Los Angeles.
Sheng received his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Studio Art from the University of California, Irvine in 2007. His MFA Thesis Exhibition included a large forty foot wide by six foot high digitally constructed panoramic photographic installation, titled "Where Matthew Lay Dying: Laramie, Wyoming," originally shot and taken from the spot and vantage point where the hate crime/murder victim Matthew Shepard was found on a fence post outside Laramie, Wyoming.
Sheng is currently a doctoral Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Stanford University.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1 (Softcover) by Jeff Sheng
Publisher: Jeff Sheng Studios; 1ST edition (2010)
Amazon: Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1
(This version is the original 8" x 8" softcover version first released January 2010) "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Volume 1," is the first ever photobook featuring the portraits and stories of closeted service members in the United States armed forces who are currently serving and affected by the laws that mandate the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-identified soldiers in the United States military. In 2009, American artist Jeff Sheng gained the trust of seventeen closeted service members and flew over 30,000 miles back and forth across the country to photograph these individuals at either their homes or local hotel rooms near where these individuals were stationed. An entirely self-funded and self-published project, the resulting publication features twenty portraits from these photo shoots, along with selected anonymous e-mails detailing the experiences of these soldiers, many of whom have just returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Volume 1," also features an afterword written by an openly gay veteran of the Vietnam War, W.M. Hunt, a New York City based photography dealer, art collector and gallery director. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1," has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Time and ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer. Jeff Sheng is a Los Angeles based artist who also teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His photographs have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, and Newsweek, his art work has been exhibited internationally including at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 2 (Softcover) by Jeff Sheng
Publisher: Jeff Sheng Studios; 1ST edition (2010)
Amazon: Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 2
This is the 8" x 8" Softcover Version, first released in September, 2010. 100-pages, full color, with an introduction by Congressman Patrick J. Murphy, and essays by Major Mike Almy and David Mixner. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 2," is the second photobook featuring the portraits and stories of closeted service members in the United States armed forces who are currently serving and affected by the laws that mandate the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-identified soldiers in the United States military. In 2010, American artist Jeff Sheng continued his photo series "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and flew over 70,000 miles back and forth across the country to photograph over 40 more service members at either their homes or local hotel rooms near where these individuals were stationed. An entirely self-funded and self-published project, the resulting publication features these new portraits from these photo shoots, along with selected anonymous e-mails detailing the experiences of these soldiers, many of whom have just returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1," was been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Time and ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer. Jeff Sheng is a Los Angeles based artist who also teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His photographs have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, and Newsweek, his art work has been exhibited internationally including at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
More Photographers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
More LGBT Couples at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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