It has been a banner year for Los Angeles-based photographer Jeff Sheng. Sheng’s series of photographs of lesbian and gay military servicemembers with their faces obscured by creative poses and effects has propelled him to national notoriety as an artist-activist at the forefront of the movement now celebrating the congressional repeal of the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).
Featured prominently in liberal media outlets like the New York Times and The Advocate, Sheng claims that the pictures “underscore the silence permeating the unsung heroism of gay and lesbian military personnel.” Undoubtedly, there is something subversive about these images, especially the few that depict the emotionally charged interaction of same-sex couples in which both partners are in uniform. However, they also do insidious political work. By fully domesticating their subjects’ military service — that is, by removing it from the context of American imperial power — the photographs preempt conversations about the problematic relationship between U.S. militarism and the politics of liberal integration.
Let me be clear. DADT is a draconian policy whose repeal should be welcomed. It is unacceptable that the Department of Defense, the nation’s largest employer, continues to fire people for coming out of the closet. In an era in which the poverty draft is swelling the ranks of the U.S. military with young adults who would have probably pursued other employment if given the option, taking DADT off the books is a priority. But Sheng’s photographs, like the vast majority of liberal critiques of DADT, go well beyond the argument for equality in the workplace by embracing a rhetoric of lesbian/gay patriotism intended to ingratiate the movement to American warhawks.
In a typical story on Sheng’s work, ABC News notes that ‘Samuel’, one of the anonymous service members who posed for the photo series, “loves his work [in the military]. He believes in his work. The only aspect of military life Samuel does not believe in is the current law.” Of course, one is left to wonder whether the soldiers and sailors like Samuel, who are so invested in a more humane workplace within the military, have given much thought to aspects of contemporary U.S. ‘military life’ such as the torture of racialized ‘enemies’, the murder of civilians, and the decimation of local economies and infrastructure.
Radical LGBTQ activists like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore have already pointed to the very limited upside of the seamless integration of lesbians and gays into an institution tasked with the oppression of queer communities and communities of color abroad. What I want to add to Sycamore’s critique is an analysis of how Sheng’s photographs offer an extremely deceiving vision of the relationship between sexual politics and the U.S. military. I hope that such an analysis will emphasize the need to situate an endorsement and celebration of the repeal of DADT within a broader network of concerns among the radical left.
There are several alarming aspects of these images. The first is the cleanliness and sterility of the homes, apartments, and hotel rooms that serve as the backdrop. These living spaces are absolutely immaculate, almost clinical (and certainly a far cry from the homes that my fellow sailors and I maintained when I was in the navy). With such pristine backgrounds (not to mention uniforms), it becomes very difficult to imagine the pictured soldiers and sailors as agents of death and destruction rampaging through the Middle East or Central Asia.
In Sheng’s photographs, their military service is critiqued solely within the realm of the private sphere. Thus, their personal struggles within the military are implicitly prioritized above their active and enthusiastic participation in global conquest. With this in mind, it seems odd that Sheng remarked to a journalist at Southern California Public Radio that “the invisibility of these wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], as well as our lack of recognition towards everyone in the military and their efforts, became a powerful inspiration for the work.” If anything, war is entirely invisible from these images.
This invisibility seriously limits the emotional content of the pictures. Take, for example, the many images of soldiers and sailors with their heads in their hands, frozen in poses of palpable anguish. It is easy to imagine any number of reasons why we might see troops in such a pose: the violent death of a comrade, the guilt over participating in war crimes, or a divorce prompted by months of separation. But recognition of these possibilities is blocked when the subjects inhabit spotless scenes of domestic order. In other words, when the world around a soldier — gay or straight — is so neat and tidy, the only suffering we can easily associate with their experience is the internal torment generated by a sexual identity deemed unworthy of patriotic service.
Nor do the photos of lesbian and gay service members posing with their hands as if they are holding a gun rectify the aforementioned absence of war. Similar to the image of ‘Grace’, a female soldier jumping playfully on her bed, the make-believe guns transform the subjects into innocent children who few would dare to imagine pulling the trigger with an ‘insurgent’ in their crosshairs. Sheng’s own description of the work emphasizes this narrow representation. As a recent piece from CNN.com explains, “Sheng said he hopes his photographs open eyes to the way the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy affects closeted service members who are fighting and dying for their country.” Clearly, the way that ‘fighting and dying for their country’ itself affects the service members (and others) is not at issue for the artist.
Mainstream liberals who have been pressing for a repeal are likely to object that, in the words of one commenter on the Bitch Magazine story featuring Sheng’s photos, “sure, militarization is problematic but that is not what this piece is about.” At best, this is naïve optimism about the potential for standard liberal equal rights discourse to operate independently from American militarism. As scholar Melanie McAlister has aptly pointed out, since Gulf War I a central component of the media strategy used by the U.S. military and political establishment to legitimate its ‘humanitarian intervention’ abroad has been the emphasis on the ‘multicultural’ makeup of America’s troops. According to McAlister, images of American power projected by a multicultural fighting force in advertisements and other representations have “provided the mandates for that power: the diversity of its armed forces made the United States a world citizen, with all the races and nations of the globe represented in its population.”
Moreover, as journalist Lila Rajiva has explained, claims of facilitating feminist liberation of Iraqi and Afghani women have become important rhetorical pillars of U.S. justification for its continued interventionist strategy in the ‘war on terror’. In other words, there is a relationship between mainstream rights discourse and the contemporary configuration of American militarism. Claiming the contrary is tantamount to an endorsement of ‘humanitarian imperialism’.
Ultimately, the danger behind work like that of Sheng is that it suggests that the repeal passed by Congress this weekend marks the final round of struggle. It encourages liberal adherents to sit back and bathe themselves in self-congratulation for supporting the integration of the military, when, in fact, the task at hand is building more meaningful dialogue and cooperation between the LGBTQ, anti-war/militarism, and anti-austerity movements. The inclusion of openly lesbian and gay service members who otherwise support the military’s role in underwriting American power abroad will not change the fact that the brutalization of foreign ‘enemies’ so often takes shape around an assumed equivalence between homosexuality and depravity (one need only recall the well-publicized photos from Abu Ghraib to confirm this connection).
Moreover, the repeal in no way addresses the de facto conscription (and isolation from radical queer politics) of more and more impoverished youth from the LGBT community who see the military as their only viable path to economic survival. With these things in mind, we must recognize that Sheng’s photos are not the type of activism we need.