Coming Out in Jackson: A Wyoming Photographer’s Journey to Find Belonging
Stephen Shelesky recently produced a film using his story as a framework to promote inclusivity in the mountain sports scene.
Stephen Shelesky was 25 years old the first time he told another person he was gay.
Years of uncertainties stemming from a tumultuous upbringing had once cast shadows over the Washington, D.C.-area native’s candor, but in October 2019, thousands of miles removed from the engineers of that indecision, Shelesky heard himself utter the most vulnerable words he’d ever spoken.
That day in Jackson, Wyoming, was a monumental step in his journey toward self-acceptance, one Shelesky documented recently with the release of the short film Out West. And yet, what made his revelation even more significant was the mental turmoil that preceded it.
Shelesky first migrated West to attend college in Colorado, a move buoyed by romanticized notions of a land replete with possibility and “a greater respect toward less traditional life pursuits,” he told Sunset.
But early hopes of fulfillment and gratification catalyzed by a new home soon unraveled. Identity struggles persisted, as did depression and isolation. Shelesky retreated inward, setting aside the optimistic ideals he’d once imagined the West would elicit.
In those days, photography and the outdoors offered diversions from confronting his sexuality. At the end of each week, Shelesky would leave his Boulder campus, putting the Flat Irons in his rearview and driving for hours until sinking into wild environs that yielded an introspective, solitary space where he could finally be himself.
With each excursion Shelesky’s photography skills sharpened, enough for keen eyes in Jackson to offer jobs shooting winter sports. His initial impressions of the Teton Range’s ski-rich Mecca, however, only compounded Shelesky’s struggles.
“The ski industry is somewhat cloaked in a heteronormativity that makes it less inclusive to marginalized groups who don’t fit that mold,” Shelesky said. “It can be an intimidating space to move into because of the prominent masculine energy that exists.”
Up until that point, Shelesky relied on external validators—notably, career success—to superficially supplement a guarded existence that never allowed for the sort of vulnerability that contributes to meaningful connections.
Accolades distracted from mental unrest, but could only mask what was at the heart of Shelesky’s struggles for so long.
“I think it eventually led me to my personal low,” Shelesky told Sunset. “It truly felt like confronting my sexuality was the only option for reaching greener pastures.”
That intrapersonal encounter came to a head in May 2018, when Shelesky embarked on a five-month road trip “with the intention of figuring ‘it’ out … without a good idea of what ‘it’ was.”
Living out of his Toyota 4Runner, Shelesky meandered his way through the West, visiting off-the-grid destinations in Arizona and Utah before driving the Pacific Coast Highway and venturing north into Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta.
During the trip’s quiet moments, Shelesky would put down thoughts in his journal. Its filled pages slowly took the form of a road map to navigate the mental valleys in which he was mired. In the journal he penned the words he would entrust to a friend a little over a year later.
“He was super supportive and excited for me, which made me feel comfortable,” Shelesky said of that conversation. “He also mentioned, ‘Anyone who doesn’t accept you, doesn’t deserve to be in your life.’ I think that really helped push me to tell others.”
Last April, Shelesky did just that by opening up about his sexuality on Instagram. For the first time he was opening himself up to be embraced by a community he once feared he would never be a part of. The vulnerability he once feared, he said, has since “opened doors to so many friendships and a community of people that feels so different than anything I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Prior to coming out I felt that it was hard to grow truly close with friends,” Shelesky said. “I always had my guard up and shielded myself from even the smallest shred of intimacy, platonically and romantically.”
Now, Shelesky is seeing those once-romanticized dreams come to fruition. Both personal and professional doors have opened, as newfound confidence gives rise to relationships that once seemed unattainable. Titanic brands of the outdoor industry such as Osprey, Teton Gravity Research, and Helly Hansen have all featured Shelesky’s work, and last fall, he was named an ambassador of the Jackson-based mountain apparel company Stio.
That Stio partnership bore fruit in the form of the aforementioned short film that used the framework of Shelesky’s story to promote inclusivity in the mountain sports scene. The film, Shelesky said, is one step in what he hopes will be a path into the realm of storytelling, exploring personal interest angles of those who feel ostracized as he once did—before that day in Jackson, before being embraced by the community.
“I previously craved solitude. Now I crave human connection,” Shelesky said. “And Jackson embodies this change in mentality for me thanks to incredibly supportive friends who have become a family bound together by a common love for the mountains.”
Watch Shelesky’s short film Out West here.