In 1981, feminist artist Judy Chicago posed the question: How do women feel about all aspects of birth? In the resulting Birth Project, Chicago conducted an original survey and then collaborated with needleworkers to create a series of artwork that celebrated “the birth-giving capacity of women along with their creative spirit.” Her work was pathbreaking in highlighting the importance of visibility and representation in feminist practice. Yet it also reproduced universalistic and heteronormative understandings of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.
Forty years later, The Queer Birth Project revisits and expands upon this work by asking: How do queer people experience birth? Representations of motherhood and birth in western art and social science have long excluded the lives of lesbian women and gender nonconforming bodies. This project seeks to promote inclusion by sharing the birth experiences of queer (LGBTQ+) people in the United States.
Led by an interdisciplinary team made up of artist Liss LaFleur and sociologist Katherine Sobering, The Queer Birth Project makes two important interventions. First, we seek to queer the focus by collecting the birth stories from LGBTQ+ people. While the original Birth Project referenced the universal “woman” who could bring forth life, we focus on the particular and individual experiences of queer people who make up a diversity of intersectional experiences.
Second, we seek to queer the mediums of communication about inclusion in childbirth and family building. In the gallery, we deconstruct conventional materials and make feminist interventions into artistic production. In the academy, we queer the conventional tools of social science research by adopting inclusive language and resisting overly simplistic classification of data for greater nuance and variation.
As the first exhibition of The Queer Birth Project, this installation reflects on one of the central themes of our project: queer experiences of the body and identity during and after childbirth. The following works are informed by responses to questions about bodies and dysphoria in our ongoing digital survey. This exhibition features four interconnected artworks: a suspended fringe mobile, two neon sculptures, and an immersive soundscape.
Fringe: Birth fringe (yellow), 2022
The central piece is a hanging fringe sculpture in the shape of a baby mobile. Referencing the classic Calder design, the large-scale mobile invites the viewer to take the perspective of an infant awash in new experiences. From their very first moments of life, babies undergo rapid development and language acquisition. For many adults, language around queer birth is also in its infancy. By making the viewer feel childlike, the installation encourages them to learn and adopt new language for talking about birth and family.
Cascading yellow fringe creates a soft and playful architecture that transforms perspectives, takes up physical space, and sparks joy. As a medium that LaFleur returns to both as a philosophy and practice, fringe is an experiential material that viewers can physically pass through while also referencing the act of “living on the fringes” of society. Building on Judy Chicago’s Birth Project, the fringe symbolizes a deconstruction of the threads used in needleworks and the color yellow is inspired by the bands of yellow and gold that stream through Chicago’s works like The Crowning: Needlepoint 3 (1983).
Neon: Growing bodies/babies, 2022 and It is strange to take up so much space, 2022
Two neon sculptures line the walls around the fringe. Growing bodies/babies (2022) visualizes the growth of a pregnant body through outlines made during the pregnancy of the artist’s partner, who identifies as a butch lesbian woman. Visible from both the sidewalk and the gallery, this piece connects with public celebrations of Pride Month, referencing colors used for LGBTQ+ representation in bright yellow that transition into bold pinks.
It is strange to take up so much space (2022) is visible as viewers in the gallery pass through the fringe. This delicate, handwritten text is drawn from our original research about queer birth. Reflecting on the changes in their body during pregnancy, one respondent to our survey wrote, “It is strange to take up so much space.” This intimate reflection prompts viewers to consider how queer bodies are perceived while pregnant, and the simultaneous attention and dismissal that our respondents report in their experiences of queer birth and family formation.
Neon—electrified, gas-filled glass tubes—is an extremely physical medium with no feminist history. LaFleur, who is a second-generation glass artist and part of a growing movement to use neon to address intersectional feminist issues, produced this handwritten quote in neon to update the penciled, handwritten script in Judy Chicago’s birth surveys archived at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
Soundscape: But they can’t steal my joy, 2022
To accompany the works in fringe and neon, a soundscape fills the gallery with a soundscape that fills the gallery with stories of queer birth. Using direct quotes from our ongoing research, LaFleur wove together narratives to create an original 40-minute looping libretto. The libretto was performed by soprano Morgan Horning and produced with digital technologies by Clayton Norriss.
Singing the reflections on changing bodies and identities is meant to elicit a sense of joy, recognizing, celebrating, and sharing the experiences of queer people in their own words. The following is an excerpt from the full lyrics, which can be found here:
I enjoyed being visibly pregnant
but I hated
the way people looked at me
tried to stay inside as much as possible
I kept my beard through my pregnancy
I would go to the hospital, they looked at me like
why the hell is he here?
I’m always surprised when people ask:
is it yours?
is it your baby?
are they from you?
are they yours?
is he yours?
is she yours?
Cause they think that a dyke like me
could in no way be a mom
Not a single person calls me
But they can’t steal my joy
This digitally-mediated audio allows the experiences of queer people to take up physical, public, and institutional space. Unlike the original Birth Project, which collected intimate narratives of childbirth but did not publicly share the stories, this piece honors individual words, celebrates them in sound, and allows them to fill the gallery. And while viewers can turn away from visual artworks to avoid their messages, the libretto serves as a sound bath, immersing the listener in inclusive language with which to understand and communicate about queer birth and families.
About The Queer Birth Project
Coordinated by University of North Texas professors Liss LaFleur (Studio Art) and Katherine Sobering (Sociology), The Queer Birth Project is an interdisciplinary research project that promotes inclusion by sharing the birth experiences of queer (LGBTQ+) people in the United States. Inspired by Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-85), this multi-year project involves original data collection through survey and interview methods, a collection of visual artworks for exhibition, and a series of publications about our findings and process.
We are looking for research participants! If you are a person who identifies as queer (LGBTQ+) and has experienced childbirth as a gestational or non-gestational parent, surrogate, or adoptive parent, please consider participating in our survey here.
Social Media: @thequeerbirthproject
About Liss LaFleur
Liss LaFleur is an interdisciplinary artist and new mother to a child birthed by her queer partner. LaFleur’s practice spans moving image, performance, queer and feminist politics, and installation art. Many of her projects develop out of extensive archival research, utilize technology as a poetic tool, and provide a radical space for reimagining our personal and collective struggles in the 21st century.
LaFleur has exhibited and screened internationally including at the TATE (London), the Reykjavik Art Museum (Iceland), SXSW (Austin, TX), Contemporary Art Museum (Houston, TX), Hermes Arts Center (Brazil), Telematic Media Arts (San Francisco, CA), Museum of Glass (Seattle, WA), and the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art (South Korea).
She is a 2022-23 ??Initiative for the Advancement of the Arts Faculty Fellow, the recipient of a Citizen Artist Fellowship with the John F. Kennedy Center, and an Immersive Scholar Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. LaFleur received her MFA as a Media Art Fellow at Emerson College in Boston, MA where she was also an affiliated researcher at the MIT Media Lab. Her studio is based in Texas, where she is an Associate Professor of New Media Art and Faculty Affiliate in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Texas and represented by Galleri Urbane Marfa + Dallas.
Social Media: @lisslafleur
About Katherine Sobering
Katherine Sobering is a sociologist and new mother to a child birthed by her lesbian partner. She is the co-coordinator of The Queer Birth Project, contributing her expertise in research methods to collect birth narratives and reflections on queer identities and family to inform and dialogue with artistic production.
She also studies work and politics in the Americas. Her forthcoming book, The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina, tells the stories of workers who occupied a hotel in downtown Buenos Aires and restarted it without a boss. Drawing on years of ethnographic fieldwork, including ten months in which she labored alongside workers in the cooperatively-run hotel, the book details the opportunities and challenges of workplace democracy and the possibilities for constructing equality at work.
Sobering is a 2022-23 Initiative for the Advancement of the Arts Faculty Fellow and her work has been funded by the Fulbright Commission and the National Science Foundation. She received her PhD in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Graduate Fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Texas.
Social Media: @ksobering