Online, there’s a queer version of Google Maps. Instead of grey, all the blocks of buildings are pink. And instead of little orange arrows denoting businesses, there are black pins that mark the locations of queer experiences—in all the interpretations of that phrase.
Called “Queering the Map,” the online art project was started slightly over a year ago by 22-year-old Lucas LaRochelle, an undergrad at Montreal’s Concordia University who recently described themselves to me as a “multi-disciplinary designer doing work around queer theory, queer bodies and technology, as well as space and architecture.” LaRochelle came up with the project last year while biking past a familiar tree on their way home—a landmark where they met their first long-term partner and eventually returned for a series of “difficult conversations.” Passing the tree, they felt a surge of emotion about not just those memories, but the ways they informed their identity, and realized that the tree was a kind of emotional sign post marking a point in the evolution of their queerness. For LaRochelle, the tree had become a “queer space.”
“And so, from thinking about that tree, I had to think about the other places that hold that kind of queer feeling—that queer orientation—and started thinking about how those spaces and architectures informed those experiences,” says LaRochelle. “Once I got through plotting those points for myself, it was a little bit boring and I was more interested in seeing how queerness is experienced for other people, because my experience with queerness is located in my own identity, my own social positioning, so I wanted to open that up.”
With the help of a technician at their university, LaRochelle turned a digital map of the world into a participatory atlas of personal queer experiences. All anyone has to do is choose a location, click to add a pin, then submit a short description of the memory they have there. For a while, the map hovered at around 600 pins, LaRochelle says, until it went viral this past February and that number jumped to over 6,500. At that point, though, the map also saw a flood of unwanted contributions: homophobic and pro-Trump messaging input by an army of trolls. So, LaRochelle briefly took the map offline. But with the help of kind strangers on the internet, they quickly got it up and running again—clean and with an added layer of moderation run by a team of volunteers.
Aside from obvious trolling and overly sensitive info like full names, though, LaRochelle says they are very intentional about not editing out others’ interpretations of “queerness” that might differ from their own. Pins on the map mark places where people met long-term partners, sites of missed connections, spots where people first realized they were trans, and former headquarters of LGBTQ activist groups that have long since been priced out.
As historic and crucial LGBTQ gathering spaces have been shuttering across the country over the past decade or so, Queering the Map offers a new way to memorialize them. It’s also a reminder that for many, queerness is still tied to important physical locations—even if they’re not old bars with rainbow flags hanging above the door.
Plus, in an age where personal data equals corporate dollars and the LGBTQ community has become a targeted demographic for advertisers in a politically fraught climate, Queering the Map re-imbues our personal histories with intimacy and attempts to strip away the capacity to commercialize these experiences by ensuring anonymity. (Although it’s slightly inconvenient, the map always loads in Montreal because it deliberately doesn’t access users’ geolocations, LaRochelle says.)
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Scrolling through my old neighborhood in Oakland, California, I see a pin at the end of the block where I once lived. At an intersection featuring an empty lot, a gated apartment building, and a few run-down duplexes, there’s the message: “i fell in love with you here. your hands and hair and smile and the sparkle in your eyes.”
A few blocks away, a pin outside of a non-descript warehouse that hosted a DIY queer dance party I once frequented reads: “easily one of the most special nights in my life. we didn't even kiss, but i dropped the alcohol you bought me and we went to a diner after. i was so happy to be with you, to dance with you. i don't know if it was or ever will be love on your end, but it was and always will be love from me….”
I think about my former neighbors and the many people with whom I shared that dance floor, realizing how all of our personal queer maps overlap to form an elaborate network that spans both space and time.
“One of the things that really excites me about the project is how much of it is relational,” says LaRochelle. “Much of it is about community, an experience in relation to another person or to a group of people—a zone of validation or invalidation. I think that's the underlying intent of the project: A sort of means of re-engaging in collectivity and re-engaging in community and care for other people.”