“Still a Beautiful Day”: Notes on a Queer Mapping Project / Thomas Dai

Screenshot of Lucas LaRochelle’s Queering the Map

  1. Arrivals

Queering the Map (QTM) began as a thought process in motion and a feeling caught on the fly. Lucas LaRochelle, the designer behind QTM, was biking past a tree in Montréal’s Jeanne-Mance Park when the idea came to them. This tree was a landmark in LaRochelle’s private, queer trajectory; under its boughs, they had met their first partner, someone who had helped them define (and then continually redefine) their sense of queerness. Biking past the tree that day, LaRochelle began to think of all the other places in the world which had been tagged with an invisible “queer feeling.” What would it mean to let other queer folks map their trees and their traces, to hold virtual space for stories which often exist unmoored from physical institutions and archives? What would it mean to take that icon of geography, the map, and queer it?1

What resulted is a still burgeoning online map which anyone with an internet connection can access and submit stories to, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. (Though one of the project’s stated objectives is “mapping LGBTQ2IA+ experience in its intersectional permutations,” the map sets no explicit parameters on what “queer” is or isn’t.) Aside from its bubblegum pink tint, QTM’s Google-sourced base layer looks like a standard political map of the world: two-dimensional, with every country and most of the major cities labeled and delimited. Black pinpoints cover this base. Each pinpoint has been geolocated by a user and supplied with a textual content—sometimes a few words, sometimes an entire paragraph—that appears within a white text bubble when you click on a point.

Wiradjuri country, Australia

When a visitor arrives at queeringthemap.com, what they first see is the project’s all-caps title. Soon, they are hovering above Montréal, where LaRochelle was living when they conceived of QTM. After a brief lag, queer moments start populating the map. Some of the captions comment on why this exact coordinate was chosen, suturing the story into its place, but many of them remark on the opposite: how the author can’t recall where exactly a queer moment transpired, though they think it was probably somewhere near this point. QTM affords its users many different modes of interacting, queerly, with space and place. A user might go on a spree of submissions, pegging as many of their own queer moments to the map as possible, or they might immerse themselves in reading and comparing other people’s queer moments. They might pick one city and stay there, exhausting and then refreshing a local trove of queer marginalia, or they might toggle swiftly from place to place, cobbling together an itinerary which includes New York and Seoul, Everest and the Mariana Trench.

As a queer person who grew up obsessed with globes and atlases, encountering LaRochelle’s map, a map they share with thousands of others, helped to rekindle my own latent cartophilia. QTM illustrates for me one of the key insights of critical cartography: that maps tell stories about the spaces and places they represent; indeed, that maps are stories. Far from producing a stable map of a singular queer cosmos, QTM offers its users an editable, motion-capture image of a spatial imaginary in flux. Even if the map centers “LGBTQ2IA+ experience” in its deployment of the word “queer,” the spatial practices encoded into QTM should not be thought of as independent from the many assembled differences of gender, race, class, nation, and indigeneity—to name just a few—that also shape how queer subjects occupy, move through, explore, and remember space. Ultimately, I want to suggest that QTM functions as a performative, representational space, one that helps its users imagine the world otherwise by collecting, in a plastic, virtual form, the different spatial practices that queer people use to appropriate and produce space for themselves in an oftentimes hostile world.2

Juazeiro, Brazil
  1. Other Worlds

There is a lot of fucking to be found on QTM, a lot of first times and last times, a lot of sad sex and awkward sex mixed in with hot sex and once-in-a-lifetime sex. These rippling topographies of sexual experience are one of the distinguishing, queer features of this map. While documenting anonymous people’s sex acts doesn’t automatically make a map “queer,” by making these moments public and showing that they occur not just in private homes but in the shared spaces of education and retail, military occupation and train transit, QTM manages to disrupt certain heteronormative assumptions we make about where sex is or isn’t to be found. As the queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argued long ago in their essay “Sex in Public,” dominant, heteronormative culture entails the clean fission of one’s public and private lives, a binarization that tends to enclose sexuality within the hallowed realm of the private, turning sex into a secret to be held between monogamous lovers, or a primal act to be indulged behind closed doors.3 Unsurprisingly, the strictures of this public / private split are applied unevenly across the spectrum of sexual behaviors and object choices. If condoned at all, minority sex practices are relegated to society’s niches and alcoves, its edges and limens, while images and rehearsals of dominant, heterosexual culture saturate media, commerce, law, and the public domain writ large.

Berlant and Warner are not asking for a simple reversal of this paradigm. What they propose is not queer exhibitionism but rather the “concretization of a queer counterpublic” which can then serve as an ersatz staging ground for the initiation of a queer “world-making project.” This queer counterpublic could thrive in any shared space that does not abide by the usual, heteronormative standards for ordering and utilizing space, and the queer world-to-be which is emergent within such counterpublics is described by Berlant and Warner as a “space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.”4 To be incommensurate means to exist out-of-proportion to something else, to be unscaled or unscalable. Such a queer world is so much more than a homosexual or gender fluid mirror image to the heteronormative world. It attains the status, that is, of Foucauldian heterotopia: “an effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”5

Scholars studying queer of color communities and cultures have been especially attuned to the different ways that queer subjects try to manifest such incommensurate, heterotopic worlds which are still pressingly real—worlds incompatible both with the broader straight world and the worlds occupied by white, urban, and affluent gays and lesbians. Martin F. Manalansan IV, for instance, has ethnographically described some of the different “worlding” practices deployed by diasporic, Filipino queers to navigate the many material and semiotic aspects of their urban milieus.6 These practices, and the messy, porous worlds they engender, are often chary of simple explication, resisting the image of rationalized order that mapping often imposes upon space.

If the very concept of queer worlds resists schematization and measurement, then what sort of queer space could QTM be said to map? To consider this question, I find it helpful to distinguish the map’s narrative-rich pinpoints from its cartographic surface, to think of the map as two distinct spatial stories in dynamic tension with one another. The map’s unadorned surface tries to tell a story of apparent objectivity, what the geographer J. B. Harley famously thought of as the scientific map’s rhetoric of facticity, its implication that there is a one-to-one relationship between what the map shows and what exists in the real world of phenomena and objects.7 When you first arrive at QTM, you encounter this supposedly neutral, unbiased base layer—the world as a knowable, chartable object—and then you watch that world get cluttered up and covered, cathected to and modified, filled with this vivid profusion of stories, this bristling garment of pinpoints, to the extent that the base layer becomes unrecognizable as what it initially was: a tool for visualizing the world as stationary, story-less, and pure.

In other words, what QTM maps is what Manalansan calls the “mess” of queer worlding at work.8 It doesn’t map a static space so much as a set of shared spatial practices: all these dispersed, tenuous locations in which different bodies in imagined community or dissensus with one another managed to perform what Michel de Certeau theorizes as an “appropriation” of space.9 For de Certeau, a walker in the city or any other user of space can tactically appropriate the lines and dimensions of that space to their own ends, much as a language user appropriates a given grammar and syntax for their own writing or speech acts, and much as a user of QTM appropriates the map’s graticule for their own, often sentimental and nonscientific ends. J. Jack Halberstam has argued for a similar understanding of queer space as emanating from the “place-making practices within postmodernism in which queer people engage.”10 QTM thus exists somewhere between an archive and a repertoire of these secretionary practices. Its queer moments do the work of lamentation or denial, lovemaking or sexting, re-writing or remembering, and they do this in relation to a specific, intangible crossing of longitude and latitude. Although the map’s representation of how these places relate to one another in physical space does not change, its account of how these places are imaginatively constellated with one another is always being revised, resulting in a new reading or orienteering experience each time one returns to consult the map. In this way, the map’s storied layer fundamentally disrupts and indeed overlays the cartographic layer’s supposed neutrality and verisimilitude, showcasing how vividly personal and deeply subjective spatial experiences can be, especially for those queer bodies who must exist in space otherwise, astride and athwart the meridians of the normal.11

Provincetown, United States
  1. Rifts

Thus far, I have written of QTM in a rather generous, even cavalier way, positioning it as one of those “maps that do include utopia” which José Esteban Muñoz, citing Oscar Wilde, advocates for in his path-making book Cruising Utopia.12 This is, of course, just one way to interpret a map whose stories are manifold and many. For a map, QTM’s content is strikingly unsure, indicating not only the equivocal nature of these queer experiences but also the fact that queer space at large—who owns it, who rents it, who it is intended to serve—remains a fractious topic of debate both inside and outside queer communities.13

It should come as no surprise that these dynamics find both direct and indirect expression on QTM’s surface. The geographic breadth of the map, its globe-spanning reach, seems to express a queer cosmopolitanism, the ad hoc creation of a United Nations of Queer. Meanwhile, the many other geopolitical and historical violences implied by the map’s borders and toponyms go largely unremarked. Any discussion of “worlding,” Manalansan reminds us, must contend with Gayatri Spivak’s theorization of the term in relation to the discursive power of imperialism. To world a world in this context is a “top-down forcible inscription by imperial powers on the colonial terrain.”14 Whether by geological surveys or cartography, colonizers create and represent a concept of a world order that is then naturalized and enforced.

QTM tries to be self-aware about cartography’s colonial resonances. The map’s info tab includes a highly visible “Territorial Acknowledgement” informing users that the map was created on the colonized land of the Kanien’kehá:ka people. This statement seems to imply that the map users’ attachment of queer moments to virtual space is not a tacit claim of physical or even figurative ownership. More broadly, the statement tries to align QTM with decolonial activism and thought, asserting that the production of queer space should not correspond to the erasure of other peoples, queer or not, whose spatiality continues to suffer systematic reduction and constraint, on this map and others.15 All that notwithstanding, certain aspects of QTM’s chosen form stymie its intersectional aims. The map’s usage of the much-maligned Mercator projection, for instance, ensures that Europe and North America visually dwarf more equatorial landmasses. Going off this projection, one sees that there is just as much space available for queering in Greenland as there is in the entire African continent. Additionally, the relative scarcity of queer moments in countries outside the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand presents an image of the queer world as concentrated within white, Western societies. This disparity helps visualize the phenomenon of “metronormativity” that Halberstam and others have critiqued.16 That is, the map frames the nations, and specifically the cities, of the West as the wellspring of a universal queer identity which might eventually percolate outwards to a Global South whose peoples are often stereotyped as traditional, agrarian, and homophobic. Many of the queer moments on QTM which aren’t located in Western countries are written in English and narrate the travel experiences and/or sex tourism of individuals who were likely only temporary visitors to the space they are queering, thus registering, in another key, the assumed Western orientation of queer subjectivity.17

QTM also presents difficulties to anyone who engages in queer spatial practices but doesn’t wish to have those practices located on a map. To appear on QTM is to consort with a sea of other such pinpoints, and yet even that risk is too great for some individuals and some stories. Given how different nation-states have actively sought (and continue to seek) to limit the mobility of queer subjects, to restrict not just their sex practices but the way they occupy space, it is unsurprising that not everyone might feel comfortable revealing where on the ground their queerness takes shape.18 After all, queer spaces are often a precious, easily dissipated community resource, and even a virtual facsimile of a queer world can make itself into a target.

Not long after QTM first went online in 2017, LaRochelle temporarily took the site offline in response to a digital campaign of nationalistic agitprop.19 What had begun as a class project for LaRochelle had quickly gone viral within queer internet circles. Soon, certain users were adding pinpoints onto the map which featured slogans such as “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” and “TRUMP IS THE GREATEST AMERICAN PRESIDENT.” The volume of Trumpian postings motivated LaRochelle to temporarily shut down the site so they could implement a more sophisticated protocol for moderating posts to QTM. Now that the map, sans MAGA posts, is back online, its info page outlines a submission process in which queer moments are informally vetted (checked for “hate speech, spam or breaches of anonymity”) before they can appear on the map.

This early episode in QTM’s short history points to several of the competing anxieties that attend the production of queer spaces either physical or virtual. First, the flooding of QTM with right-wing propaganda by anonymous users may reveal the homophobic anxieties of internet trolls seeking to waylay, mock, or otherwise destabilize the outlining of a space they view as threatening to their own, heteronormative notions of space. On the other hand, LaRochelle’s creation of a “moderation” system in response to the trolls (who may well, after all, identify as queer), evinces its own complicated, preservationist anxiety, saddling the map’s volunteer staff with the difficult task of deciding which moments submitted to QTM are properly or safely queer.

Michael Brown and Larry Knopp write that queer geography has often “positioned itself… as antithetical to [geography’s] more traditional orthodox disciplinary anchors like cartography and GIScience.”20 This adversarial relationship between queering and mapping creates a profound tension within QTM and projects like it. While I personally find no fault with LaRochelle’s attempt to protect QTM’s queer world from being appropriated, I do think it is important to dwell on how a map—or any queer world-making project for that matter—might always in some way circumscribe or otherwise limit queerness and queer spatiality. Thinking about QTM as a moderated, representational space forces us to ask what limitations a map applies to space in order to be legible as a map. Moreover, it leads us to wonder if the technologies we call mapping simply are not up to the task of representing queerness’s “incommensurate geographies.” Perhaps we need a cartography that goes beyond the two-dimensional plane of QTM, that leaves every feature of land or sea mutable, unfixed—that appropriates not just the map, but geography itself.

Dhaka, Bangladesh
  1. Repairs

To be clear, I am making these observations not to criticize QTM and its makers but to reflect on the many vagaries of trying to map queer spaces and queer lives. These vagaries do not, in my mind, invalidate the many diverse ways that queer people have produced and narrated their relationship to space through QTM. Though the cynical might label any virtual form of world-making an inadequate response to the ongoing shuttering of physical queer spaces in North America and elsewhere—a shuttering that has only accelerated during the pandemic—I’m not ready just yet to dismiss QTM’s own, quiet radicality. To me, the tapping of fingers on keyboards and the wonky trips we take into memory can at times also comprise a risky approach to queering space. In other words, there is queer skin on the lines of this map. There are people speaking to and through its grid, telling the map tales which might never find purchase in another, public medium. Read in this light, QTM becomes a rubbing, even a carbon copy, of a much larger, future-oriented project of queer world-making. We could even think of it as a bottom-up, crowdsourced supplement to the many different theoretical countermapping efforts which have recently engaged scholars from many different academic disciplines in a reconsideration of Western modernity’s normative geographies.21

As de Certeau’s much-cited aphorism claims, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.” 22 I want to edit de Certeau’s evocative statement to say that “what the map cuts up, the story tries to repair.” QTM’s stories don’t undo in any material way the conditions of horrifying extraction and ongoing oppression that underlie any blasé cartographic surface; nor do these stories all index liberatory ways of being queer that are devoid of fear, boredom, or negativity. What they do achieve is an unsettling of geography’s most iconic surface. That is, the queer moments logged on QTM add to and complicate the narrative already being told by the surface of any conventional map—a story usually told from the singular, rationalist perspective of the surveyor who has worlded this world. With QTM, all the map’s users participate in the worlding. Space is reframed as intimately, contingently, and vexingly shared. “Spatializing disciplines such as geography… have the advantage of permitting ecological or systems approaches to such issues as identity and performance,” Eve K. Sedgwick writes in Touching Feeling, and this is partially how QTM begins to both queer and repair the map—by relieving this cartographic surface of its authoritative distance, its smooth objectivity, and accentuating a textural queer world steeped in relationality, story-telling, and care.23

Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
  1. Ephemera

Most of the queer moments I’ve borrowed from the map would qualify as what Muñoz calls “ephemera.” That is, the pinpoints attest to moments and spaces which have happened and then unhappened; they are “all those things that remain after a performance, a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself.” The concretization of past and future queer counterpublics depends on the cataloguing and expression of such “evidence.” What signs queer spatial practices leave behind are small—“glimmers, residues, and specks of things”—and yet they too deserve rigorous attention, even if what they show is just the negative space, the outline, of something vital that existed only to faithfully disappear.24

My favorite entry on the map describes a person’s memory of a day when they couldn’t get out of bed and so just lay there, thinking of a past lover, and looking out the window at the many people—alone like they were now or coupled like they used to be—the people silently walking across a park. It’s a spare anecdote, a tiny portrait of living. What I love about it though is the uplift of the end, how the writer recalls, very simply and somewhat absentmindedly, that despite their depression and despite not leaving the house, looking out the window confirmed that it was “still a beautiful day.”

Many times in my life, I’ve also lay down in that bed, facing whatever it is that I face, and tried to summon the same trust in a day’s unrelenting beauty. When I was researching this essay, I went to the map and tried to track down that exact entry, that story which had moved me in some oblique but meaningful way. I pulled my computer screen back to the country and city where I remembered finding that pinpoint. I went through every entry within a reasonable radius, my mouse’s arrow combing through a field that was more delightfully cluttered, more spatially queer, than I remembered. But I couldn’t find it, that record of someone else’s beautiful day. It too had given me the slip.

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  1. LaRochelle has spoken about the origins of QTM in interviews with different media outlets. See Alastair Boone and Martin Echenique, “A Crowdsourced Map of the Queer World,” CityLab, February 14, 2018, https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/02/an-effort-to-queer-the-map-comes-under-attack-and-fights-back/552824/, and Toby Sharpe, “Interview with Lucas LaRochelle, Founder of Queering the Map,” Project Myopia, March 12, 2018, https://projectmyopia.com/interview-with-lucas-larochelle-founder-of-queering-the-map/.
  2. By “representational space,” I am referring to Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualization of “representational space” as “directly lived through its associated images and symbols…” See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991: 39.
  3. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (1998): 555.
  4. Ibid., 558.
  5. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 24.
  6. Martin F. Manalansan IV, “Queer Worldings: The Messy Art of Being Global in Manilla and New York,” Antipode47, no. 3 (2015): 566-79.
  7. J. B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” Cartographica 26, no. 2 (1989): 1-20.
  8. Manalansan IV, “Queer Worldings,” 566.
  9. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Oakland: University of California Press, 2011), 97-98.
  10. J. Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 5.
  11. I am referencing here Eve K. Sedgwick’s well-known etymological analysis of “queer” as coming from an Indo-European root that also gives us the English word “athwart.” See Eve K. Sedgwick, “Foreword: T Times,” in Tendencies, p. xi-xvi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), xii.
  12. José E. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 18.
  13. For two incisive, if urban-centric, accounts of these debates, see Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013) and Martin F. Manalansan IV, “Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Spatial Politics in the Global City,” Social Text 23, nos. 3-4 (2005): 141-55.
  14. Manalansan IV, “Queer Worldings,” 569.
  15. For more on queer settler colonialism, see Scott L. Morgensen, Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  16. Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 36.
  17. For a useful consideration of queer tourism, see Jasbir K. Puar, “Circuits of Queer Mobility: Tourism, Travel, and Globalization,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8, nos. 1-2 (2002): 101-37.
  18. See Margot Canaday, The Straight State (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2009.
  19. Boone and Echenique, “A Crowdsourced Map of the Queer World.”
  20. Michael Brown and Larry Knopp, “Queering the Map: The Productive Tensions of Colliding Epistemologies,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98, no. 1 (2008): 40.
  21. For key examples of such countermapping projects within queer studies and related fields, see Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: New York University Press, 2011), and many others.
  22. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 126.
  23. Eve K. Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 8.
  24. José E. Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts”, Women & Performance 8, no. 2 (1996): 5–16.
Thomas Dai
Thomas Dai is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brown University, where his research focuses include contemporary literature, queer studies, and the environmental humanities. Aside from his academic work, he is also working on a collection of personal essays about space, place, and identity. Recent essays appear in The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, New England Review and elsewhere.