The Queer Birth Project and They Can't Steal My Joy
Liss LaFleur and Katherine Sobering
The Queer Birth Project
All artwork on this page © Liss LaFleur and Katherine Sobering. Courtesy of the artists. Click twice to Enlarge.
There is a long history of feminist scholarship on the politics of reproduction and the politics of representation (Tyler 2000, 290). Yet research and representations of childbirth often exclude the experiences of lesbian women and gender non-conforming bodies. For example, in 1981, pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago posed the question: How do women feel about all aspects of birth? In the resulting Birth Project (1980-85), Chicago conducted a survey and collaborated with 150 needleworkers to create artwork that celebrated “the birth-giving capacity of women along with their creative spirit” (Chicago, n.d.). Forty years later for The Queer Birth Project, we are applying a critical intersectional lens to queer this important series of feminist art by exploring the childbirth experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. Through an interdisciplinary collaboration between a feminist new media artist (Liss LaFleur) and a feminist sociologist (Katherine Sobering), we draw on original survey, interview, and arts-based research to create new representations of queer childbirth and family formation.
Childbirth has historically been understood through a medicalized epistemology rooted in certainty, simplicity, linearity, and pathology (Downe and McCourt 2008, 4). Among heteropatriarchal institutions, queer pregnant bodies are out of place, suspect, and unintelligible. As one respondent shared, “I would go to the hospital, they looked at me like - why the hell is he here?” We understand experiences of queer pregnancy and childbirth as unbecoming (McCallum and Tuhkanen 2011, 10), a process that throws into relief unstable, complex, and processual experiences of human reproduction. While gender-nonconforming bodies are often ignored or marginalized, the temporally situated experience of pregnancy can draw newfound attention to bodies and embodiment. Indeed, one respondent reflected, “it’s strange to take up so much space,” highlighting the simultaneous attention and dismissal of their queer pregnant body.
“They Can’t Steal My Joy” (2022) is one of four interconnected artworks exhibited at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas from May to July of 2022 as part of The Queer Birth Project. Each artwork reflects on experiences of dysphoria and queer bodies during and after childbirth. To produce this forty-minute looping libretto, Sobering analyzed preliminary survey responses from queer people who had experienced childbirth while LaFleur wove direct quotations together to create a soundscape that filled the gallery with stories of queer birth. The libretto was then performed by a soprano using a vocoder and digital synthesizer. From its early roots in the military, to apocalyptic futurism in the Bronx (Jazzy J and Afrika Bambaataa in the 1970s), songify applications, and performances like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, vocoders and digital synthesizers have been utilized as a method of masking and mediating the body. Drawing on this history, we employ this technology to experiment with trans-feminist embodiment and a queered digital voice as a tool for liberation (Periano 2014, 287-88).
One line from the libretto -- “It is strange to take up so much space”-- is visualized as a delicate, handwritten text experienced as viewers in the gallery pass through large suspended fringe curtains hung in the shape of a baby mobile (Image 1). 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 original birth surveys.
While the libretto delves into narratives of structural inequalities, cultural exclusions, and personal challenges that shape queer experiences of dysphoria during pregnancy, it also highlights the power of bodily autonomy and deep fulfillment of chosen family building (Heston 2013, 246). As one respondent shared, “As a boy who gave birth, it was the most profound experience of my life.” Singing these reflections on changing bodies, moreover, is meant to elicit a sense of joy by recognizing, celebrating, and sharing the stories of queer people in their own words. While there is a dearth of research on joy in everyday life (Shuster and Westbrook 2022, 1-2), “They Can’t Steal My Joy” explores queer pregnancy and childbirth as a process of unbecoming, sharing not only difficult and ambivalent experiences, but also joyful accounts that make up the complexity of queer lived experiences.
© Liss LaFleur and Katherine Sobering. Courtesy of the artists. Click to Enlarge.
They Can't Steal My Joy
I was trans
I was just
I was just
a lesbian in guys clothes
during my pregnancy,
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
During my pregnancy,
of my body and
to grow new life
At 5 months,
I'm finally calm
I had an emergency c-section with a lengthwise incision
from hip to hip
and the entire shape of my body changed,
like a stretched watermelon
At first, I was dysphoric
my hips got bigger
my body got softer
But pregnancy helped to confirm
what I knew from a very young age,
which is that I'm not a woman
carry a lot
a lot of grief
inside my body
I love my partner
but seeing her pregnant
makes me feel
like I am missing out on an entire chapter
yet to be written
And I said
I identify (clap clap) I identify (clap clap)
as a cis femme queer woman
I have struggled my entire life with feeling
but pregnancy felt natural
I was not afraid of how my body would change
I was nervous about how the world would treat me,
as a pregnant person,
as a mom,
in a heteronormative world,
I know that people are going to start reading me as straight
when I started getting bigger,
in fact I loved it
feeling the baby grow
feeling my very round belly grow
But as soon as I looked in a mirror,
that this is my body
It was my body
It was a body
It was my body
And I got a crushing feeling of dread
for what was ahead
in the middle
between masculine - and - feminine
Which room do I go to with my effeminate, masculine, pregnant body?
Where will I swim?
Where will I play?
Will I have to wear a top because my “male” nipples will now be considered
“female”? When I start going to doctors’ offices or yoga
and I’m the only person there who doesn’t identify as a woman,
A lot of people expected my partner to carry our child
- but she couldn’t
I used to go into the women’s restroom, and people would think I was
a dude That changed when I was pregnant
Why did I have to be pregnant
- to feel safe in a public restroom?
about my hourglass figure
my chest feeling full
my butt getting wider
my feet not fitting in my favorite shoes
My body looked pregnant
for a year after my last miscarriage,
All of my hair fell out
I finally got pregnant in a clinic
we used donor sperm
my body changed but I just felt like there was
more of me
I live like a man, my girlfriend lives like a woman
we take hormones
never in a million years would I
ever imagine I would get pregnant
being a parent was never really a dream I had for myself
I cried when I found out,
We cried when we found out,
I cried so much
when I understood
what it meant
As a boy who gave birth
it was the most profound experience of my life
I had no connection to my body
I didn’t want to lose the relationship I’ve built with it over the last six
years But this pregnancy journey
is not a regression
rather than losing what I’ve built,
I’m connecting to my body in ways I never imagined
I would as a trans person
I’m only at the beginning, but already this is a deeper level of
connection And it’s just going to get deeper
I feel like
a science experiment
It is strange to take up so much space.
Chicago, Judy. n.d. “Birth Project (1980-85).” Judy Chicago Official Website. Accessed December 1, 2022. https://www.judychicago.com/gallery/birth-project/bp-artwork/.
Downe, Soo, and Christine McCourt. 2008. “From Being to Becoming: Reconstructing Childbirth Knowledges.” In Normal Childbirth: Evidence and Debate, edited by S. Downe, 3-28. Edinburgh: Elsevier Health Sciences.
Heston, Laura V. 2013. “Utopian Kinship?: The Possibilities of Queer Parenting.” In A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias, edited by Angela Jones, 245–67. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
McCallum, E. L., and Mikko Tuhkanen. 2011. Queer Times, Queer Becomings. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Periano, Judith. 2014. “Synthesizing Difference: The Queer Circuits of Early Synthpop.” In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship, edited by Olivia Bloechl, Melanie Lowe, and Jeffrey Kallberg, 287-314. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Shuster, Stef M., and Laurel Westbrook. 2022. “Reducing the Joy Deficit in Sociology: A Study of Transgender Joy.” Social Problems: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spac034.
Tyler, Imogen. 2000. “Reframing Pregnant Embodiment.” In Transformations, edited by Sarah Ahmed, Jane Kilby, Celia Lury, Maureen McNeil, and Beverley Skeggs, 288-301. London: Routledge.
We would like to thank Morgan Horning for performing the libretto and Clayton Norriss for contributing digital technologies to the piece. This work was funded, in part, by support from the University of North Texas and the Nasher Sculpture Center.