A few months ago, I traveled to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, where I met with a group of employees who were in the process of creating a GLBTA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies) Employee Resource Group. The group discussed ways to make ESPN more inclusive, including organizing an event for Gay History Month.
From 2003 on Jeff has photographed 70 openly LGBT student-athletes. The diversity of the athletes and the sports they play (rugby, water polo, track and field, swimming, basketball, lacrosse and more) really illustrate that the LGBT sporting community can be found outside of the local gay softball league.
Jeff normally exhibits Fearless in high schools and colleges and often the pictures are displayed together in central meeting areas (like the student union).
The ESPN exhibition was completely different.
ESPN’s headquarters is comprised of more than a dozen buildings, which they refer to as their “campus.” When deciding to display “Fearless”, they chose the entrances of buildings with the most foot traffic across their entire campus. By displaying the large-scale photographs front and center within its most-used buildings, it was clear that ESPN was serious about diversity and inclusion.
More than 5,000 ESPN employees got a chance to experience the images and words of the student-athletes. Additionally, countless tour groups saw the exhibit as they were shuttled from building to building. The exhibit was impossible to ignore. And the images and accompanying stories are so striking, people were compelled to walk up, look closer at the images and read the athletes’ stories.
On October 24, ESPN invited Jeff Sheng, four of the photographed students, and Pamela Misener - Assistant Dean of Student Life and Advisor to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Students at Dartmouth College, to speak to ESPN employees about their experiences.
Everyone in the room heard different stories, but there was one common theme — the need to find other LGBT student-athletes. Even those who came out and were embraced by their teammates still felt a sense that they were alone. Even though most colleges and high schools have LGBT centers or groups, many student-athletes have different needs than the resources those organizations provide.
After everyone shared their story, the floor was opened for questions. Some in the audience wanted to share their story of being LGBT and some of the challenges faced even in a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. Others asked the panel what they thought of phrases like “that’s so gay” and media representations of the LGBT community.
At the end of the discussion each panelist gave advice to the employees about being more inclusive. Some of the student-athletes reminded the employees to not assume that everyone is straight when getting to know people. Others reminded everyone to keep their minds open and to talk about issues affecting LGBT people.
After the panel, the panelists were given a tour of ESPN and the exhibit itself. To view more pictures from the panel and the tour, please visit here. Below is a video of the student-athletes reacting to the exhibit and their experience participating on the panel.