Queering The Map: An Interview with Lucas LaRochelle — Sissy Screens
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Interview
Author: Stephanie Williams

Queering the Map

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Queering the Map: An Interview With Lucas LaRochelle

If you haven’t experienced Queering the Map (QTM) it’s an online map of the world which allows people to anonymously plot their own queer story. Stories are a few lines long, and range from sexy to sweet, to the raw, the painful and dark, to the absurd and hilarious.

QTM creator Lucas LaRochelle speaks to Sissy Screens writer and editor Stephanie Williams about the project, which was born from a desire to mark their own queer experiences in a meaningful way. That was back in 2017, and since then plots on the map have multiplied: firstly, at the hand of their own community in Montreal; then throughout Canada; to every continent of the world, international waters included.

SS
When and how did you come up with Queering the Map? What was your original hope for it?
LL
I was thinking about what it would feel like to move through a (digital) world overflowing with queer stories—queer pasts, queer presents—and how these stories might inform how we think about what kinds of futures are possible.

That was the original impetus. I then developed QTM, placed five of my own stories and launched it. Over the past few years the site has grown beyond my wildest expectations and there are now over 86,000 stories, in 23 languages, from across the world.

"I think intimacy is one of the things that’s so special about Queering The Map, which in many ways is lacking from dominant social media platforms."

SS
Often digital platforms, especially social media, are thought of as something that disconnects people; that the digital takes people away from the real world, from activity and connection. But with QTM we see the opposite—it's creating community. What do you think it is about this platform that allows people to be so intimate?
LL
I really appreciate how you put that—I think intimacy is one of the things that’s so special about QTM, which in many ways is lacking from dominant social media platforms.

The first answer to that question is the anonymity of the platform. QTM allows you to publish and write outside the confines of the user profile, which often asks that we ‘perform’ by creating and curating a version of ourselves that is marketable. Users leave behind an intimate trace of their life that is not tied in perpetuity to their other digital selves.

Secondly, the act of contributing to QTM is an act of sharing one’s story for the collective. It becomes an act of giving, one that is decidedly different to the kind of self-promotion that we’re often asked to do in other digital spaces.
SS
In some countries people have posted it’s illegal to openly identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, how does the site ensure people are safe to tell their story? I know that it’s anonymous, but are there other measures—maybe I don’t understand the backend to a site like this…
LL
There’s no perfect answer to that question. But in terms of QTM infrastructure, the tricky territory between representation and surveillance is negotiated by not collecting user data. The only things stored in the database are the geolocation tag, the text and the time of submission. There is no user profile and thus no user data associated with the points. It’s also important to note that specifically in contexts where queer life is made illegal, one should use a VPN to obscure their IP address, as a general safety precaution.

The moderation process also plays a role—if people try to post a story that includes someone’s first and last name, it’s not approved, or a phone number, email, exact address. That’s all blocked. This moderation process is why it takes an infamously long time for something to appear live on QTM. There’s something like 42,000 stories currently in the moderation queue! Moderation is labour!
SS
On the topic of moderation, monitoring and maintenance. What does it take for you to keep it going?
LL
It’s very hard. I’ve never advertised QTM—it’s truly a miracle that it’s grown the way that it has. I also never expected the kind of labour necessary to keep this project afloat, let alone the cost of hosting the website and the database.

There’s also a large amount of emotional labour to do this kind of work, and it’s something I take quite seriously. I don’t moderate passively on my phone on the metro, because it can be very intense. I mean there’s some submissions that are like ‘cute, cute, great, great’ and then there’s ones that fuck you up to your very core.

I sit in my room and I click and I read each story carefully. So it’s an act of intimacy between myself and the project. It’s not some algorithm running through all of the stories saying ‘go, go, go’ online, which is unfortunate because I think many people would like their posts to appear much faster.
It’s a big labour of love.
SS
I did have a question about data—I mean, data, data, data!—it’s risen to be one of the most valuable commodities.
LL
Everything is data! But this is all public-facing data, rather than user data. So there’s no data to sell—much to my parents’ chagrin. [Laughs]

"Queering space is not about possessing it, but rather to critique a static understanding of how space is produced. By who and for whom?"

SS
“I just created a worldwide platform that everyone’s excited about but there’s no money.”
LL
Oh my god, yes, “ok so you’re successful and people know about this project all over the world, why aren’t you rich?”

The ethics of the project were articulated early on, QTM will never be the project that earns me any money in a direct sense, but that's never been the point.

Back on data though, the new project I’ve been working on lately is developing an artificial intelligence trained on the textual and visual database of QTM, whose name is QT.bot. They are an AI that is generating speculative queer and trans pasts/presents/futures and their corresponding locations. The intent isn’t to draw any conclusions about QTM, but rather to work with the data to make it even more opaque and confusing. It's a practice of fabulating in the archive, generating new pasts/presents/futures from the queer and trans histories that have been recorded on QTM. QT.bot is trying to work with data and AI in a non-productive/poetic way. It’s queer in terms of the content of the training set, but also in terms of the approach to data—queer uses of AI outside the realm of progress, efficiency, etcetera, and towards fantasy and fabulation.

You can follow QT.bot on Instagram to follow their development.
SS
Placemaking is vital to minority communities, especially as traditional queer spaces begin to change. Have you seen the digital map influence the physical?
LL
Definitely. One of the aims of QTM is to archive those places, and to consider the impact of digital technology on how queer spaces are being created. Ephemeral spaces are no less impactful than brick and mortar locations—queer bars, bookstores, bathhouses etcetera—where LGBTQIA+ life is most commonly thought to exist.

And then, how does QTM activate real spaces? I think that’s a question that will drive a lot of continued output that comes out of QTM as a project, through workshops, events and performances. Recently, I organised an exhibition and two week public program, called Queering The Map: ON_SITE that functioned as a temporary queer community space.
SS
In Montreal?
LL
Yeah, in Montreal and it was unbelievable—maybe the most gratifying thing that I have done because so much of the work I’ve been doing and the community building happens online, so it was amazing to experience that sense of community that QTM has generated in physical space!

I ran a workshop with one of my dear friends and collaborators nènè myriam konaté called ‘Prototyping for Emergent Spaces’ in which we collectively prototype possible futures that emerge through the synergies between our individual narratives. This workshop begins with a personal storytelling circle, and often people will share with the kind of intimacy that they do on QTM—because QTM has been the reference point for this workshop. So that’s been a lot of the work that I’ve been doing to try to extend the kinds of intimacies that are happening in this digital space into a physical location, if only briefly.

"So much of theorising around queer space is thinking about the notion of belonging. But as a settler on stolen land, questions of belonging need to be complicated."

SS
Living on stolen land and in colonial spaces, as we do here in Australia, how do you see QTM’s relationship to first peoples?
LL
One of the primary questions I was working through when I developed Queering the Map was “What does it means to think about queer space on stolen land?” This project started in Tiohtià:ke, otherwise known as Montreal, on the lands and waters of the Kanien'kehá:ka Nation. So much of theorising around queer space is thinking about the notion of belonging. But as a settler on stolen land, questions of belonging need to be complicated. It is integral to think about non-indigenous queer belonging, or attachment to place, by considering it alongside the histories and presents of colonisation.

While it is only one small step, QTM includes an acknowledgement of territory and links out to native-land.ca to encourage users to interrogate on a deeper level what their identities mean in relation to the lands and waters on which they live. My hope is that QTM makes evident the multiplicity of relations to land, and that people consider the overlapping histories and presents within a given location when they post. It’s a collective map; not an individual map. Queering space is not about possessing it, but rather to critique a static understanding of how space is produced. By who and for whom?

Making links between queering and decolonisation is an ongoing goal of QTM—the installation of hetero-patriarchal systems and the erasure of genders that exist in expanse of binary male and female categorisations is colonialisms dirty work. As a story that is posted at a school in Honolulu reads: “…I learned that decolonization must mean queer liberation and that queer liberation must mean decolonization.”
Queering the Map: An Interview With Lucas LaRochelle

If you haven’t experienced Queering the Map (QTM) it’s an online map of the world which allows people to anonymously plot their own queer story. Stories are a few lines long, and range from sexy to sweet, to the raw, the painful and dark, to the absurd and hilarious.

QTM creator Lucas LaRochelle speaks to Sissy Screens writer and editor Stephanie Williams about the project, which was born from a desire to mark their own queer experiences in a meaningful way. That was back in 2017, and since then plots on the map have multiplied: firstly, at the hand of their own community in Montreal; then throughout Canada; to every continent of the world, international waters included.

SS
When and how did you come up with Queering the Map? What was your original hope for it?
LL
I was thinking about what it would feel like to move through a (digital) world overflowing with queer stories—queer pasts, queer presents—and how these stories might inform how we think about what kinds of futures are possible.

That was the original impetus. I then developed QTM, placed five of my own stories and launched it. Over the past few years the site has grown beyond my wildest expectations and there are now over 86,000 stories, in 23 languages, from across the world.

"I think intimacy is one of the things that’s so special about Queering The Map, which in many ways is lacking from dominant social media platforms."

SS
Often digital platforms, especially social media, are thought of as something that disconnects people; that the digital takes people away from the real world, from activity and connection. But with QTM we see the opposite—it's creating community. What do you think it is about this platform that allows people to be so intimate?
LL
I really appreciate how you put that—I think intimacy is one of the things that’s so special about QTM, which in many ways is lacking from dominant social media platforms.

The first answer to that question is the anonymity of the platform. QTM allows you to publish and write outside the confines of the user profile, which often asks that we ‘perform’ by creating and curating a version of ourselves that is marketable. Users leave behind an intimate trace of their life that is not tied in perpetuity to their other digital selves.

Secondly, the act of contributing to QTM is an act of sharing one’s story for the collective. It becomes an act of giving, one that is decidedly different to the kind of self-promotion that we’re often asked to do in other digital spaces.
SS
In some countries people have posted it’s illegal to openly identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, how does the site ensure people are safe to tell their story? I know that it’s anonymous, but are there other measures—maybe I don’t understand the backend to a site like this…
LL
There’s no perfect answer to that question. But in terms of QTM infrastructure, the tricky territory between representation and surveillance is negotiated by not collecting user data. The only things stored in the database are the geolocation tag, the text and the time of submission. There is no user profile and thus no user data associated with the points. It’s also important to note that specifically in contexts where queer life is made illegal, one should use a VPN to obscure their IP address, as a general safety precaution.

The moderation process also plays a role—if people try to post a story that includes someone’s first and last name, it’s not approved, or a phone number, email, exact address. That’s all blocked. This moderation process is why it takes an infamously long time for something to appear live on QTM. There’s something like 42,000 stories currently in the moderation queue! Moderation is labour!
SS
On the topic of moderation, monitoring and maintenance. What does it take for you to keep it going?
LL
It’s very hard. I’ve never advertised QTM—it’s truly a miracle that it’s grown the way that it has. I also never expected the kind of labour necessary to keep this project afloat, let alone the cost of hosting the website and the database.

There’s also a large amount of emotional labour to do this kind of work, and it’s something I take quite seriously. I don’t moderate passively on my phone on the metro, because it can be very intense. I mean there’s some submissions that are like ‘cute, cute, great, great’ and then there’s ones that fuck you up to your very core.

I sit in my room and I click and I read each story carefully. So it’s an act of intimacy between myself and the project. It’s not some algorithm running through all of the stories saying ‘go, go, go’ online, which is unfortunate because I think many people would like their posts to appear much faster.
It’s a big labour of love.
SS
I did have a question about data—I mean, data, data, data!—it’s risen to be one of the most valuable commodities.
LL
Everything is data! But this is all public-facing data, rather than user data. So there’s no data to sell—much to my parents’ chagrin. [Laughs]

"Queering space is not about possessing it, but rather to critique a static understanding of how space is produced. By who and for whom?"

SS
“I just created a worldwide platform that everyone’s excited about but there’s no money.”
LL
Oh my god, yes, “ok so you’re successful and people know about this project all over the world, why aren’t you rich?”

The ethics of the project were articulated early on, QTM will never be the project that earns me any money in a direct sense, but that's never been the point.

Back on data though, the new project I’ve been working on lately is developing an artificial intelligence trained on the textual and visual database of QTM, whose name is QT.bot. They are an AI that is generating speculative queer and trans pasts/presents/futures and their corresponding locations. The intent isn’t to draw any conclusions about QTM, but rather to work with the data to make it even more opaque and confusing. It's a practice of fabulating in the archive, generating new pasts/presents/futures from the queer and trans histories that have been recorded on QTM. QT.bot is trying to work with data and AI in a non-productive/poetic way. It’s queer in terms of the content of the training set, but also in terms of the approach to data—queer uses of AI outside the realm of progress, efficiency, etcetera, and towards fantasy and fabulation.

You can follow QT.bot on Instagram to follow their development.
SS
Placemaking is vital to minority communities, especially as traditional queer spaces begin to change. Have you seen the digital map influence the physical?
LL
Definitely. One of the aims of QTM is to archive those places, and to consider the impact of digital technology on how queer spaces are being created. Ephemeral spaces are no less impactful than brick and mortar locations—queer bars, bookstores, bathhouses etcetera—where LGBTQIA+ life is most commonly thought to exist.

And then, how does QTM activate real spaces? I think that’s a question that will drive a lot of continued output that comes out of QTM as a project, through workshops, events and performances. Recently, I organised an exhibition and two week public program, called Queering The Map: ON_SITE that functioned as a temporary queer community space.
SS
In Montreal?
LL
Yeah, in Montreal and it was unbelievable—maybe the most gratifying thing that I have done because so much of the work I’ve been doing and the community building happens online, so it was amazing to experience that sense of community that QTM has generated in physical space!

I ran a workshop with one of my dear friends and collaborators nènè myriam konaté called ‘Prototyping for Emergent Spaces’ in which we collectively prototype possible futures that emerge through the synergies between our individual narratives. This workshop begins with a personal storytelling circle, and often people will share with the kind of intimacy that they do on QTM—because QTM has been the reference point for this workshop. So that’s been a lot of the work that I’ve been doing to try to extend the kinds of intimacies that are happening in this digital space into a physical location, if only briefly.

"So much of theorising around queer space is thinking about the notion of belonging. But as a settler on stolen land, questions of belonging need to be complicated."

SS
Living on stolen land and in colonial spaces, as we do here in Australia, how do you see QTM’s relationship to first peoples?
LL
One of the primary questions I was working through when I developed Queering the Map was “What does it means to think about queer space on stolen land?” This project started in Tiohtià:ke, otherwise known as Montreal, on the lands and waters of the Kanien'kehá:ka Nation. So much of theorising around queer space is thinking about the notion of belonging. But as a settler on stolen land, questions of belonging need to be complicated. It is integral to think about non-indigenous queer belonging, or attachment to place, by considering it alongside the histories and presents of colonisation.

While it is only one small step, QTM includes an acknowledgement of territory and links out to native-land.ca to encourage users to interrogate on a deeper level what their identities mean in relation to the lands and waters on which they live. My hope is that QTM makes evident the multiplicity of relations to land, and that people consider the overlapping histories and presents within a given location when they post. It’s a collective map; not an individual map. Queering space is not about possessing it, but rather to critique a static understanding of how space is produced. By who and for whom?

Making links between queering and decolonisation is an ongoing goal of QTM—the installation of hetero-patriarchal systems and the erasure of genders that exist in expanse of binary male and female categorisations is colonialisms dirty work. As a story that is posted at a school in Honolulu reads: “…I learned that decolonization must mean queer liberation and that queer liberation must mean decolonization.”
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Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants.