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One big step forward for gay rights… and two steps back

Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens by Jeff Sheng
Doesn’t it feel sometimes like the more progress we make and the more dialogue starts opening up, the more the whack jobs and haters come out (so to speak) of the woodwork?

To wit: Earlier this week the Boy Scouts of America — after having conducted “extensive research and evaluations” on the subject, and after considerable external pressure from Scouts past and present — confirmed that they will continue to ban openly gay scout leaders and members. Why? Because, they say, the ban reflects the Scouts’ “beliefs and perspectives.” But, promises one prominent former Scout and gay-rights activist, Star Trek‘s George Takei, “the fight is not over.”

Meanwhile, Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A — a noted supporter of anti-gay groups — is no longer dodging the question of where the company stands on gay rights. “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” he said in an interview. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

But then there’s this: A couple of weeks ago, Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali of the Air Force and his partner, Will Behrens, had their civil union ceremony (more commonly known as “got married,” in places where gay marriage is legal) at the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst chapel in New Jersey — one of the first gay couples to do so on a military base. “We are so honored to be a part of this historic moment,” they said in a statement afterward. “We hope to be an inspiration to others in the LGBT community that struggle with the challenge of marriage equality.”

Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens. Photo by Jeff Sheng.

Photographer-filmmaker-artist Jeff Sheng, who documented the wedding, originally met the couple two years ago, as part of his ongoing project documenting service members affected by the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. When Umali and Behrens told him a year later that they were getting married, Sheng said it would mean a lot to him to photograph their wedding. “For about three years, I had been meeting hundreds of closeted service members,” Sheng told SUNfiltered. “Imagine having to lie to every single person around you about the person you love — then that suddenly changing [with the repeal of DADT]… it was personally very important for me. Progress had been made and I could use my camera to document this and show we really had changed.”

There’s hope yet.

Photo credits: Jeff Sheng

Check out our gallery for more of Sheng’s photos from the event.