Queering The Map: A Skype Call With Lucas LaRochelle

“One of my dreams for Queering The Map was that I would remain anonymous. I kinda fucked that up.”

That’s something of an understatement. It might sound like a strange aspiration, to be anonymous. Maybe it’s also strange that a project that assigns its participants blanket anonymity provides exactly the conditions necessary to give a diverse and persecuted demographic visibility. But anonymity is distinct from invisibility. It presupposes a crowd in which to lose oneself, with which to be amalgamated. Perhaps it touches on a sense of belonging that so many of us have lacked in our formative years in an othering world. In the case of Queering The Map, anonymity is the basis of our ability to become known.

It’s a hot London afternoon, and I’m Skyping Lucas LaRochelle in Montreal, Canada. Over the last hour, the conversation has moved rapidly from pinkwashing and colonisation to cyber-security, Foucault and Rita Ora. “I’ll try to be concise,” LaRochelle grins at one point: they have a lot to say, but I’m not tired of the conversation.

As a queer person of colour, the extent to which I’ve had to shrink myself to occupy oppressively heteronormative spaces has varied only in terms of degree: from the bedroom where I could be as flamboyant as I wanted to the kitchen where every movement could open me up to shame and disapproval; from the school where homophobia was a defence mechanism against being read as queer to the changing rooms where internal denial fought headily with desire; from the temple where I sought forgiveness to the clubs where I sought validation. Common to all these is an experience of the world as fundamentally othering. Even safe spaces define themselves negatively against the oppressively cis-het (white, male, monied) geography of public space. The internet has enabled unprecedented dialogue and visibility for queer people, but – however many privileged gay men have the audacity to assert that “homophobia is, like, so 2008” – for many of us the internet is simply the Narnia to our closets. On the other side of the keyhole, we’re still playing the same games. And the stakes are invariably high.

Queering The Map is an archive of our stories, a platform where anonymous anecdotes can be pinned onto specific locations in an interactive map. Started last year by Lucas LaRochelle, the project is outlining a hidden queer history that goes beyond tired “subculture” tropes and stamps a claim on the sites of our pride and shame, romance and heartbreak, rejection and acceptance. The virtual map connects heartfelt first kisses, group sex at cruising spots and important sites in LGBTQ+ history, in a crowd-sourced cartographising of love, pain and resistance across continents. Beginning as a personal project, it’s racked up thousands of pinned memories over the last year from people all over the globe.

queering the map

“It emerged from an emotional and theoretical urge,” LaRochelle explains. “I had just read Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology – I recommend it so highly! – and her argument is that queerness is an orientation, obviously towards bodies but also towards space in general. I was biking past this tree where I had met my first long-term partner, and where a couple of months later I was a bit explosive about my non-binary identity, and shifts within my gender identity. But obviously that tree was not legibly queer. There was no way of communicating that affect without directly communicating that story to someone else. As I continued biking, I continued to think about all of the other spaces that held that kind of queer feeling for me that was rooted in architecture and geography. Then I got a little bit bored of thinking about my own experiences and began thinking about a strategy for how to enable the sharing of queer stories in relation to space. And also coming from a theoretical understanding of queer space not as something that is a fixed concept, but rather trying to take a queer post-colonial approach of queer space as a relational experience that is always in flux. Queer space is not claimed space, but rather something that is ephemerally produced through the relation of queer bodies in space. It’s multiple perspectives that occur simultaneously in the same environment.”

Space isn’t seen as something that’s being explicitly politicised here but something that is inherently political and has never been neutral. The site makes this understanding clear, acknowledging “that this project was started on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka … the island called “Montreal” is known as Tiotia:ke in the language of the Kanien’kehá:ka, and it has historically been a meeting place for other Indigenous nations”. LaRochelle elaborates, “That’s one of the biggest tenets of QTM, trying to figure out how notions of queering space are in coalition with indigenous land sovereignty, because queer space happens on colonised land.”

Making that clear from the offset does a really good job of sidestepping pinkwashing – a legitimate concern when queer narratives are aligned to specific locations on the site – and LaRochelle is keen to emphasise how important it is not to fall into that trap. “The resistance to pinkwashing is a big part of the equation, resisting the bizarre impulse to instrumentalise queer bodies through a neoliberal agenda; to resist pinkwashing as a strategy that says ‘this place is safe for gay people, and this other place isn’t’ as a means of rationalising violence. Thinking specifically of the pinkwashing of Israel, my hope for something like QTM is that it can play a part in resisting these narratives. It’s like, queer life exists everywhere, and in permutations that are different from a western context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all bad in one place and all good somewhere else.”

Throughout the interview, I’m struck again and again by the lack of affectation in expressing both “the emotional and theoretical urge” behind the project. When LaRochelle name-drops Sarah Ahmed, or José Esteban Muñoz, or Lee Edelman, or David V. Ruffolo, or J Halberstam, it’s not to try and assign academic credibility to a very personal project (or to make me feel like the worst queer English grad ever, I’m assured); it’s because theory has real currency when combined with our lived experiences, it has the potential and even the imperative to engage with us and help us progress from identifying the struggles of a heteronormative world to “turn[ing] the other way and creat[ing] the queer wonderland”. I think they’re half-joking, but with such a radical perspective it can be hard to be tell.

“There’s so many important, revolutionary concepts that are developed in an academic context, but there could be more of an attempt to take those concepts and make them accessible. There’s a necessity to do work to make the world a better, safer place. There’s a certain kind of privilege that academia in certain cases likes to breed which is this position of criticality that oftentimes leads to complacency. Then there is the perhaps even more ominous kind of privileged remove that reeks in that UK Attitude article of ‘there’s nothing left to do’.”

I’d brought up the infamous article, still incensed (all these months later) by its wilful negligence in arguing that queer people shouldn’t need to know our own history. As if this were a liberation movement that had come and gone, as if our history wasn’t a living thing. “It was a truly unbelievable thing to read. The dislocation of the current from the past that totally discredits the fact that if the past is really cool for you it’s because you’ve assimilated pretty easily into hetero-white-supremacist-late-capitalism. There is a reason for that, and that reason is that people, particularly queer and trans people of colour, began this revolution which was then co-opted to get you to where you are able to dislocate yourself from this labour.

“That’s also another huge part of Queering The Map from a long-term vision: how do we resist from the get-go the whitewashing of something like Stonewall? When we use the democratic (though obviously not perfect) environment of interactive digital technology, are we able to better move away from singular understanding of how an experience played out, and rather open it once again to a multiplicity of voices to be in a conversation with one another, so as to resist the sort of top-down understanding of how history has played out?”

In an age where mainstream American outlets are starting to tell queer stories of resistance – Netflix’s ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’, ABC’s ‘When We Rise’ – it can be difficult to find representation that doesn’t conform to an idea of a linear progression towards acceptance and tolerance. Along with the tension between palatable and readily-accessible stories being monetised by corporations that can profit off of queer resistance narratives without necessarily supporting those still struggling for recognition, I ask if just providing a platform has translatable power irl? “I think any sort of platform that enables people to tell their own stories on their own terms holds the potential for that to happen, or for it to be a site of empowerment. In terms of the way a particular definition of queerness that’s been packaged and sold back to us through the neoliberal agenda, seeing the ways in which that’s being resisted from multiple perspectives has been pretty exciting.”

“Multiple perspectives” might not give an accurate notion of just how big Queering The Map has got. A year since it began, there’s almost 20 000 posts on the website – and it’s growing every day. “I probably have 4000 favourites”, they laugh. “The process of going through and reading these stories every day, I have learnt more than I ever thought was possible.” And after all that, how would they define queerness?

“I would do that annoying artist thing where I say ‘actually it’s open to interpretation’ – which is true to a certain extent, because that’s the baseline methodology of the project, that it’s always in flux. I think this also works to reposition queerness in a way that allows it to return to its roots as a coalitional politic – which is also the underlying aim of QTM, trying to reinvest in that sort of mode of queerness, not as an exclusionary model that’s in a dyadic relationship to normativity, but rather something that’s always in flux and in relation. In ‘Post-Queer Politics’ (problematically named, I know), David V Ruffolo argues that queerness has an obsessive relation with cis-heteronormativity and heterosexuality, and he uses a schitzoanalytic and risomatic approach rather than a dyadic approach – so rather than oppositional he positions queerness as fundamentally relational. It’s definitely something I’ve drawn on with QTM. Even from a user interface perspective, the way that people are interacting with the site – if we were to call Twitter heteronormative, we could do so by drawing attention to the use of linear time as the model through which people are interacting with information: this is the newest information and you’re seeing that first and scrolling on one line and there are algorithms that promote what gets to the top; whereas QTM is trying to develop a form of user interface that’s relational, so people are clicking in between things in a less controlled manner.”

Spatially, it does encourage a different mode of thought. Rather than trying to situate ourselves within a specific linear teleology – in terms of rehabilitation, assimilation, integration, the streamlining of  experience – there is the opportunity to reinscribe something transient from our own experiences and make that permanent in a sense that’s not appropriating the land itself but allows us a space of safe and honest representation that we lack in mainstream outlets. However normal it might be to see statues of genocidal colonisers who induced famines halfway across the world, it’s rare to see statues of women in London. The idea that you might see a statue of a queer person, the idea that there’s a place we can go to that isn’t inextricably tied to the consumer matrix is radical. Even looking specifically at queer spaces, most of them are sites of transaction where money is spent in return for that safety, whether they’re bars, clubs or other venues. Text on the QTM site reads: “As queer life becomes increasingly less centred around specific neighbourhoods and the buildings within them, notions of ‘queer spaces’ become more abstract and less tied to concrete geographical location.”

LaRochelle attributes this decentring of traditionally queer spaces to the proliferation of digital technologies as the predominant means through which queer bodies are coming to find and meet one another. But they’re vehement about resisting the erasure of physically queered space too. “The importance of concrete queer spaces where queer people know that they can go and be safe are incredibly important, and the fact that we’re losing those kinds of spaces is really scary and we need to resist that in as many ways as possible. The last lesbian bar in Montreal shut down in 2013 and there’s no lesbian-specific spaces anymore – I mean there’s more queer spaces popping up, but The Village is pretty much a cis white gay masculine heterotopia.”

Of course, it’s no easy thing to avoid the transactional politic of space under a global capitalist system, even in the context of queer resistance. As someone who is studying at Concordia University and freelancing as a web designer, LaRochelle is pragmatic about the opportunities and limitations of their practice. “One of the things I find really valuable about design is the way in which part of its intent is as a platform for communication. There’s an attempt to democratise ideas. And there is an urge to do something – the disclaimer of that being that design is obviously also capitalism’s best friend, it’s part of the machine, but I would like to situate my practice in terms of being ‘within and against’ capitalism.”

If statements like that have become eminently meme-able in an increasingly polarised political climate, they are nevertheless rooted in a well-thought out understanding of the interrelation of liberation and anti-capitalist movements. And one of LaRochelle’s most striking qualities is to ground this kind of rhetoric in the realities of growing up as a member of a minority community. The continued risks faced by queer people in real life is mirrored by trolling, doxing and abuse online, and QTM hasn’t gone unnoticed by opponents of what it represents. This is best illustrated by a recent spam attack from Trump supporters – the site had to be taken down while measures were put in place to insure it against this sort of homophobic backlash in future.

“Presumably it was just one person who created a bot, and the bot created a series of posts that multiplied every time you clicked on them, and the posts would just say ‘Donald Trump, best president, make America great again’. So I took the site down and asked for help on the URL. I received a huge response and people came together to set up a github to increase the security tenfold. It qualified for Project Galileo which is an anti-DDoS system that protects sites with marginalised content being hacked or spammed. Then we set up a moderation panel. In my tiny little mind, I’d thought ‘nothing bad is gonna happen, it’s just gonna be me and my friends, no one’s ever gonna see it.’ That was proved very incorrect, 20 000 posts later.”

If the limelight has come as a complete shock to LaRochelle, it’s been just as arresting to the thousands of queer people across the world who have found a home for our experiences. By giving us the tools to write our own narratives, Queering The Map reinscribes the geography of our lived experiences as porous and liminal, our stories bleeding across socially-enforced borders. For me – the small boy who felt utterly isolated at 14, crying himself to sleep in suburbia and wondering if anyone would ever understand – it’s more than an archive. It’s an opportunity to heal.

Angad Singh is a London-based poet, writer and sometime musician who struggles with mental health issues, hopeless romanticism and growing up as a queer British Indian. His poetry also sometimes touches on these things.

Images Courtesy of Queering The Map

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *