FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes is a photography book and personal memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng featuring the portraits of over 200 LGBT high school and college athletes. The book also contains an afterword by retired NBA basketball player Jason Collins. The FEARLESS book is being released today, and you can preview part of it and purchase it at fearlessbookstore.com.
This image, one of eight specialty covers for FEARLESS, features Alyssa Sialaris, a four-time All-American volleyball/track & field athlete at Whittier College. Sheng photographed Alyssa in 2012, less than a year before she unexpectedly passed away. To help launch the FEARLESS book, and to honor and celebrate Alyssa's book cover, we asked Alyssa's mother, Sandy Sialaris, to share what her family has realized since Alyssa's passing. Sandy wrote this letter to Alyssa.
On Huffington Post, Jeff Sheng shares his thoughts on Alyssa's passing and her mother's letter.
Our Beautiful Alyssa,
At your memorial vigil service at Whittier College, we heard wonderful stories about how you inspired many people and changed their lives. Some shared how you befriended them in silly, unusual ways, with crazy stories of times you were the biggest goofball imaginable. Others characterized you as the most endearing confidant one could ask for.
While we wish you were there to personally share these stories, we understand they weren't yours to tell; they were their stories, and you had the leading role. These stories are treasures you left to your friends and to us.
Losing you has been the most agonizing and devastating trauma we've ever lived through. Trying to find the appropriate adjectives to describe our family's emotional heartache is truly impossible. There are no words that can express the pain we feel of losing you, our daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and cousin.
We miss you so, so much, baby.
For the longest time, we'd felt like we were the luckiest parents in the world. Nearly 24 years ago, with the grace of God, our two-person family grew to three. You, this beautiful healthy girl, entered our lives, and our hearts were full beyond belief. You were the happiest, un-fussiest baby.
What an angel you were!
From the time you were small, we began talking with you about two very important characteristics that we knew would lead you to greater things in life.
First and most important, we raised you to possess self-respect. If you were lacking in this area, you would never have respect for anyone or anything else.
The second was to always be true to you. Only you know your truths or un-truths. In order to possess self-respect and feel complete pride in all you do, you had to know that you couldn't achieve anything through lying, cheating, or stealing. Watching you and your sisters grow into these self-driven, strong, powerful, respectful and kind adults has been singularly THE most amazing, joyful, and proud experience of our lives.
Baby, we are so thankful that you trusted that there were no conditions placed on our love for you, and that you heeded our teachings of self-respect and living authentically. When you opened up to us about your sexuality before leaving for college, you gave us such a gift, Alyssa. You trusted that we would love you the same, treat you the same, and be thrilled for you when you found love.
You cried as you told me, begging me to understand, "Mom, I'm still the same person: same girl, daughter, sister, granddaughter, athlete, friend, artist, same everything! I just like girls."
You seemed surprised when I told you we pretty much already knew. I said there was nothing to explain: You are you. As we talked, I expressed my initial sadness in letting go of MY image of how all my daughters' lives would be: married and with children.
But you told me you wanted that too. That made me smile.
Dad never felt that sadness. He was just glad that you could now move forward and live your life fully. From a conversation you had with him that summer, he knew you were hoping to find love.
Within a couple of months you had come out to our whole family. Even your 75-year-old grandmother and your old-school Greek grandmother never blinked an eye at you. This is true, uninhibited love.
Soon you found love in Katie, and we had the pleasure to spend a couple of days with her over your Christmas break. We enjoyed seeing you happy in a relationship.
We are so blessed to have had the chance to express to you the many ways you've made us proud. Witnessing you as an athlete was a beautiful experience not only because you were a four time All-American volleyball/track & field athlete, but also because of the person you were as an athlete. You were a great competitor, a truly good sport. You cheered for your opponents. You lifted your team's spirits with jokes, laughter and pep talks. That made us proud.
Early in the final semester of school you proudly shared with our family a couple of big projects that were personally really important to you. One was the "It Gets Better" video that you are in. The other was being part of Jeff Sheng's FEARLESS project. You were proud to be an ambassador for the LGBT community on campus.
Your commitment to finish your academic education stronger than ever made us very proud. The last time we ever saw you, we got to share your pride for how well you were doing in your classes. Sadly, you never got to tell us that you had been invited to the Whittier College Presidential Scholar-Athlete luncheon. Nor did you get to attend it. The date of the luncheon was the day you had passed away, April 3, 2013.
We are so blessed that you had the fortitude to share your truths with us and to trust that we would never reject you. We've been able to make it through each day and experience any happiness after losing you only because of our wonderful memories of you, our strong family ties, and your sisters. We often think God gave you to us because He knew we would be the ones to help you achieve whatever greater purpose He had planned for you.
Had we turned you away four years ago, the pain and guilt we'd live with would be unfathomable, and we'd miss any chance of ever experiencing happiness. To put it pure and simple, love is love. There are no conditions that come with loving our children.
We love and miss you BIG GIRL! Thank you, Lyss, for the gifts you've given to us in your short 21 years of life. "WE ARE STILL THE LUCKIEST PARENTS IN THE WORLD!"
May your memory be eternal.
All our love to you,
Mom, Dad, Nicole, Dina and all of your loving family.
On Huffington Post, Jeff Sheng shares his thoughts on Alyssa's passing and his mother's letter.
Alyssa Sialaris is featured on the purple cover of FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, the last of eight different specialty covers for the book. The book pays homage to the original 8-stripe LGBT pride flag designed by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. Instead of just one cover, FEARLESS has eight different athlete covers showcasing the diversity of the LGBT sports community. (All books are identical inside). When stacked together, the eight different book versions form a three-dimensional representation of the original 1978 LGBT pride flag. It is only fitting that Alyssa serves as its base and foundation. To see the other covers, or to purchase a book for $39.95, please visit fearlessbookstore.com.