Few emotions demand declaration quite like young love. It is practically all you can think about when you’re under its influence and you can’t help wanting everyone to know how you feel.
But for many, those feelings are willfully suppressed. For some, the affection they are feeling cannot be shared, for fear of the outcome.
It is a situation that multimedia artist Liss LaFleur understands intimately. LaFleur, currently the visiting artist and assistant professor of digital and new media at Davidson College, grew up in Texas, where she often felt at odds with her surroundings.
One instance arrived annually, with the spectacle that is Texas homecoming.
One integral part of that experience is the gifting of mums by the boys to the girls, and boutonnieres from the girls to the boys. These elaborate pins — decorated by ribbons, real and fake flowers and various trinkets — are meant to show affection, but they also help prop up accepted societal norms.
“I just feel like there are certain things that we do that are almost ritualistic,” she points out, “and a lot of the times they are celebratory but they go against things like equality and recognizing our differences.”
LaFleur’s latest project, called MUM, is her way of exploring what it means to LGBT youth experiencing love, affection and desire within a broader culture that remains at least somewhat uncomfortable with, if not openly hostile toward, their sexuality.
She calls MUM an “experimentation in recollecting LGBTQ and queer high school love stories, crushes, and fantasies.” Anyone with a story to tell is encouraged to anonymously share them on the MUM Project website (mumproject.com). LaFleur only asks for initials and gender identity.
All of the stories will be populated on the MUM website, and a select few will be chosen to be materialized as actual mums, which will then be exhibited at some point in the future.
“The whole project came out of me reflecting on my time in high school as a queer youth,” LaFleur says. “Feeling like I couldn’t be who I am and be with who I wanted to be (with), and participating in these structures, or these events, that are very heteronormative…and wondering how it would be different if I could go back and do it over with a partner of my choosing.”
LaFleur says her high school sold homecoming tickets in pairs, requiring the name of both the boy and girl who would be attending together. She and her high school girlfriend were left with no option other than to go with boys or not go at all.
Even though she had come out as gay at 16, in a newspaper article she wrote about gay marriage, both she and her girlfriend dutifully attended homecoming with guys. It wasn’t until her senior year that she was able to go to a dance without the pretense of a male “date,” as she attended a queer prom hosted by an LGBT youth group.
“By my senior year, I was just so tired of it,” she says.
She has remained close with her ex, who is now a trans man, and the idea first came to her mind while talking with him one day.
“Our conversation is really what made me want to launch this project,” LaFleur recounts. “Just reflecting on our first kiss, and how if I was to recreate that situation now, and take that person to a homecoming, they would be a man so we would look like a heterosexual couple now.”
While she sees some signs of improvement for LGBT youth in the South, citing the recent crowning of a transgender homecoming king at East Mecklenburg High School as uplifting and hopeful, progress still seems slow.
“Nothing has changed at my high school,” she says. They still do not let individuals of the same gender attend dances together, and that, last time she checked, they still do not have a gay-straight alliance.
But she’s excited by the submissions that are already coming in, and is encouraged by the many people, especially those from older generations, who have said they have been waiting for an opportunity to finally share these stories with someone.
LaFleur is also moved by the idea of reclaiming the mum and giving it a larger, more inclusive context; one that celebrates a more universal concept of love and affection.
“It’s amazing to me that somebody hasn’t appropriated these items within the queer community already, because they’re so gaudy and showy, you know?” she says, laughing.
Gaudy and showy, but also powerful as icons, which she hopes to help reshape.
“I really hope that this project will bring visibility and support, and also celebrate this idea of queer youthfulness,” she adds. “Because I feel like it’s not celebrated enough.” : :