When a design student launched an interactive project to map LGBTQ spaces in Montreal, it went viral. Then it went dark.
There’s a tree in Jeanne-Mance Park in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood that has special significance to Lucas LaRochelle. It’s where the 22-year old designer and student at Concordia University met their first serious partner. (Note: LaRochelle uses gender-neutral pronouns.) Later, the couple had a memorable argument there. In the years since, the same place kept coming to mind.
“I was biking home from school one day and I biked by this tree, which I go by every day on my way back from school,” LaRochelle said. “As I continued my bike ride, I was plotting out in my head all of the other places, or objects, or architecture, that held that queer feeling for me.”
This got LaRochelle thinking: What other parts of Montreal could be mapped according to the queer experiences of others? Out of this question came Queering the Map, an interactive project that allows anonymous users to drop pins on a map and write notes about moments they have had regarding their own queer experience.
LaRochelle started developing the map about a year ago as a part of a class project, then continued to develop it independently. Slowly, it started to make its way through LGBTQ networks in Canada. After Montreal DJ Frankie Teardröp shared the map on Facebook last week, the number of pins swiftly multiplied from around 400 to over 1,600 before spreading from Canada to the continental U.S., and the rest of the world. By February 8, the map boasted more than 5,000 entries.
From the beginning, LaRochelle was concerned about the security of the site and the privacy of its users. As with any crowdsourced data project, Queering the Map is vulnerable to the whims of whoever encounters it and decides to drop a pin. Indeed, as the map started to grow in popularity, LaRochelle found that it came under growing attack from malicious users, spammers, and hackers. Then, on February 9, they woke up to discover a dense throng of identical pins along the east coast of the U.S., all bearing messages in support of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“[It] was a frustrating thing to encounter,” LaRochelle said. They quickly took the map offline, posting a message alerting viewers and asking coders and savvy web developers to help secure the interface. Several users offered assistance, culminating in a joint effort of eight people working together through GitHub, a collaborative platform for coders and HTML designers. LaRochelle expects a new, more secure version of the map to be back online within a week.
“That is the silver lining. Not that it (the hacking) needed to happen, but having the opportunity to make [the map] better and secure, and having that help offered is incredible,” LaRochelle said. To protect users, the map doesn’t take the geodata of contributors, and it will soon have a moderation panel that reviews pins before they are published, to fend off homophobic and transphobic language.
In a way, the hacking attack is in keeping with the history of queer spaces, which have often been perilous to navigate, because of the risk of exposure or persecution. In the 1970s, lesbian women in France used the Minitel—a pre-internet Videotex service that operated through phone lines—to connect with one another. There remain plenty of places around the world that are not safe for queer people, including those in which being gay is a punishable offense. And there are many, many more where queer identities are a source of social isolation.
LaRochelle can attest to this personally. “As a young queer person growing up in rural Ontario, where for a very long time I felt like I was the only queer person, I would say the internet saved my life, in terms of seeing representations of queerness...and knowing that there were other people in the world that had similar experiences” they said. “As I encounter Queering the Map, it has the same kind of feeling.”
By taking advantage of cyberspace, the map can also reclaim some of the traditionally queer physical space that has been lost, like the bars that have slowly shuttered over the past decade. “As queer life becomes increasingly less centered around specific neighborhoods and the buildings within them, notions of ‘queer spaces’ become more abstract,” LaRochelle’s website reads. “The intent of the Queering the Map project is to ‘queer’ as much space as possible, from park benches to parking garages, to mark moments of queerness wherever they occur.”
Each pin has a story to tell. Some are pained descriptions of confusion, shame, and heartbreak. Others are playful accounts of happiness and pride, as well as love, sex, and relationships. All of them are intimate, and act as a landing place for queer people around the world who can toggle through the map and see that no matter the experience they are having, they are not alone. “Whatever constitutes queerness or queer action, or queer space, or queer geography counts for this project,” LaRochelle said.
As Queering the Map grows, it has the potential to document how these spaces have evolved over time. “It’s been incredible learning more about queer history as people [add] more historic information…an older generation of queer people [have been adding pins] within the same areas, but totally detailing a different experience of that space,” LaRochelle said. In this way, the map can be a powerful vehicle for queer history, which has often been neglected, gone undocumented, or been erased all together.
And that history is very much in progress. In Australia, for example, where gay marriage was legalized just two months ago, the map reflects a number of pins around Sydney that celebrate the decision. In that same area, there are also pins written by those who align themselves with more a radical queer tradition, which doesn’t typically embrace the idea of marriage. “There were tons of points talking about a pro-marriage politic, in the exact same spaces there’s a huge anarcho-queer politic … that perhaps [feels that] gay marriage [is not] what we need to be fighting for,” LaRochelle said. “It’s interesting to have those under the umbrella of queerness, but existing in the same geography.”
LaRochelle hopes that by showcasing the way the same physical spaces can host such vastly different experiences, it will help users—and observers—develop a more dynamic understanding of the land on which they live. To this end, the map also presents a disclaimer about Montreal’s original name—Kanien’kehá:ka—and the indigenous people who first lived there.
“Inherent to any mapping project there are colonial implications,” LaRochelle said. “Queering the Map is intentionally political, but that politic needs to be coalitional, especially with an indigenous politic, if we’re talking about land and geography. That’s one of the next steps—figuring out how to make those links more apparent, and more active.”