Queering the Map on capturing LGBTQ+ history

We speak to Queering the Map, the digital, crowd-sourced mapping project memorialising queer existence and history across the world

Feature by Katie Goh | 03 Sep 2018

Where did you have your first kiss? Do you remember the party where you met your partner and the museum where you had your first date? What about the club where you first realised you liked girls or the park where someone first went down on you behind the bins? Do you walk down the street and pass the spot where you had your heart broken by an ex? These places are more than buildings or names on a map – they’re living spaces that we invest with our memories and desires.

For Lucas LaRochelle, the ever-changing, subjective relationship each of us has to place was the incentive behind Queering the Map, which LaRochelle describes as a “community generated mapping project that geolocates queer moments, memories and histories in relationship to place.” It’s a pink interactive Google Map with thousands of pins across the world, each of which captures a queer moment written by an anonymous queer-identifying person. Pins range from the amusing (“gay penguins (they love and support u)” reads a pin in Antarctica) to the heart-breaking (“the kids at this school couldn't decide whether to call me faggot or dyke”) to affirmations of queer identity (“Me” can be found on lone pins throughout the world).

It was a bike ride that inspired Queering the Map. “It’s a route I took every day to and from school,” explains LaRochelle over Skype from Montreal. “There’s this tree where I had met my first long-term partner and it was that same tree where I’d had an explosive argument with him about my non-binary gender. That tree held a significant amount of queer feeling that grounded me in my relationship to the world. So, as I continued that bike ride, I started plotting out and making a mental map of all the spaces, architectures, and geographies that informed or had an effect on my own experiences of queerness. I then started thinking about what it could be like to move through these environments and feel the presence of the queer past, the queer present, and the queer future all coexisting so as to better understand or feel in relationship to my community throughout history.”

Queering the Map began with a couple of pins in Montreal reflecting LaRochelle’s experiences of queerness, which was gradually expanded by Montreal’s LGBTQ+ community. It continued to grow substantially until earlier this year when the site was hacked by pro-Trump trolls. “It was spammed by Trump supporters who created a series of pop-ups that read 'Donald Trump Best President, Make America Great Again,'” LaRochelle tells us. “So I took the site down and asked if there was anyone who had the coding capabilities that would improve the site’s security. A group of queer coders and I restarted the project to be significantly more secure and involved a moderation panel so that hate spam and unsafe content could be screened from the map.” Relaunching on 3 April, Queering the Map went from 6,500 pins pre-hack to now containing 23,000 pins, on every continent and in over 15 languages. “They are truly all over the map,” says LaRochelle, “pun intended.”

While there are other similar projects that exist which attempt to capture queer experiences, Queering the Map is unique in its emphasis on anonymity and community. “That was the initial impulse – resisting individualism,” says LaRochelle. “Queering the Map is trying to resist the individual as the way through which we come to care for and give value to people and instead move towards the collective as the means through which we care and give value. Which then brings in the reason for the hyper-anonymity of the project. I wanted Queering the Map to be an infrastructurally queer social media platform, in terms of critiquing social media on the way it forces us to construct ourselves as individuals, which in many ways is a weapon of neoliberalism.

“However, at the same time, social media is incredibly important in terms of giving platform to queer and marginalised groups,” LaRochelle continues. “So I think a return to or reinvestment in anonymity and collectivity with Queering the Map is allowing for the sharing of stories that don’t necessarily have to be linked back to an individual, rather through experiences that are shared and co-constructed. I was interested in the different ways through which our stories could be articulated when we’re not caught up in how they propagate a certain version of the self.”

Queering the Map now has ten moderators but LaRochelle thinks that number will soon need to expand. “Posts are flooding in. It’s a labour of love and quite a bit of emotional labour, carefully reading through every point. I’ve read a fucking lot and with no exaggeration, there’s not a single time that I’ve sat down and not cried or been so intensely moved. It’s a gift. The vulnerability that people share on this site. Going on the website and reading these things. I don’t know how to make that articulate but the things that people share and allow other people to relate to or learn from more is moving beyond words.” 

Undertaking a truly global collaborative project has been eye-opening for LaRochelle in many ways, particularly in how unrealistic mainstream narratives about being queer are. “There’s a Western liberal impulse that makes the assumption that the West is safe for queer people and the non-West is unsafe for queer people which is a rationale for violence and neo-colonialism,” says LaRochelle. “Queering the Map resists the idea of queerness as a Western phenomenon. Homosexuality may be illegal somewhere but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that people find a way that’s different to the way queerness or homosexuality or transness is experienced in a Western context. It still exists. I think one of the most valuable things about how this project is growing and being used by people is that people articulate queerness on their own terms.”

For LaRochelle, resisting Western narratives about queerness that perpetuate colonialism came in the form of resisting the map as “a colonial apparatus that from a top-down perspective tries to describe objective truth and a fucking colonial garbage lie. Resisting objectivity within spatial politics or within mapping practice is so important and I hope Queering the Map contributes to that thought process, that when something is constructed as objective specifically in the case of mapping, we need to examine very intensely what those impulses are and whose being erased.”

Going forward, LaRochelle hopes to turn Queering the Map into a series of print publications. “There’s something about a project that starts with the body in orientation to the built environment, and then the body in relation to digitally re-experiencing or re-articulating the body’s relationship to the built environment in the digital environment, and then creating this digital world that we are collectively experiencing on Queering the Map to then take that back into the physical world. To encounter these stories once again from the bodies that are experiencing them and sharing them, I think would be a beautiful way of giving even more validity or weight to the stories. There’s a different relationship we have with the physically-written word than we do to things written on the internet.”

As LaRochelle describes, Queering the Map is a gift of a project. Anonymity on the internet being used for the collective good, to create a community rather than destroy one, is the antithesis of the Trump-inspired hack that the project experienced. LaRochelle says that the cyber attack only revealed just how important Queering the Map is, “that the community came together to solve the problem in the desire for the project to exist as a resource for the community.”

Reading through the pins, it becomes clear how important the project is. For the one queer kid living in a country where homosexuality is illegal, seeing pins dotted around their country, revealing that there are people just like them existing beside them and that they aren’t alone – Queering the Map is truly a gift. What an honour to read, re-live and share in the mapped memories.