26 Jun

Map of the Week: Queering the Map

By Nigel Jaffe

As LGBT Pride Month winds to a close, millions of people across the nation are preparing for marches, parties, and, in New York City, even proms. The iconic NYC Pride March will coincide this weekend with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a landmark of the LGBT rights movement that can be found among many others on WorldPride NYC’s map of the city. That interactive map plots historical sites and upcoming events throughout New York City related to LGBT Pride; today’s Map of the Week, however, spotlights an example of the intersection between geography and activism with a much more ambitious scope. 

Queering the Map—a project dubbed the “queer version of Google Maps”—allows anonymous contributors across the globe to pinpoint their “queer spaces” on a shared map, pairing each location with a short story or note. Since its inception in 2017, the atlas has accumulated thousands of pins, with corresponding blurbs that range from single phrases to 400-word narratives. The website’s “About” page invites users to share their own meaningful moments as part of a larger network: “The intent of the Queering the Map project is to collectively document the spaces that hold queer memory, from park benches to parking garages, to mark moments of queerness wherever they occur.”

The many pins illustrate a range of experiences that is diverse in both geographic location and content. Some of the notes are joyous, others are heart-wrenching, and many celebrate moments and places that, taken out of context, would seem entirely ordinary. What makes them worth pointing out is their relation to queerness, however tenuous or commonplace: in the words of the project’s creators, “There are no guidelines to what constitutes an act of queering space. If it counts to you, then it counts for Queering the Map.”

The majority of the pins—especially those that accompany unextraordinary, everyday moments—serve as a means of representation. Early on, the map was (needless to say) blank, albeit thoroughly washed in its distinctive bubble-gum pink. Each new pin signifies an additional queer moment, filling what was initially a void and letting others know they are not alone. A pin near a small town south of Albany, NY, reads: “Shoutout to any queer Ichabod kids that may be reading this. The lack of representation made it hard for me to even realize how queer I was before college. It may feel lonely now, but I promise it gets better <3”

The power of Queering the Map as a tool of representation is even more pronounced in parts of the world where LGBT rights are most under threat. Same-sex marriage remains illegal in much of Africa and Asia, while homosexuality is punishable by death throughout the Middle East. Subtler negative shifts in the Vatican’s attitude, coupled with recent setbacks in eastern Europe and China, leave LGBT advocates with a long way to go even as steps have recently been taken toward legalizing homosexuality and same-sex marriage in India, Taiwan, and Ecuador. 

Many of the pins from areas with fewer protections for LGBT people display a firm sense of defiance. One note, from Unguja—one of the main islands of the Zanzibar Archipelago in Tanzania, where homosexuality is a criminal offense—reads: “We swam in the ocean and she made my fears slowly go away.” Another, from an urban district of Zhangzhou, China, where same-sex marriage remains illegal, reads: “I never hide my queer identity in my school. Sometimes people would call me a monster in front of or behind me. But to be honest, being a monster is enjoyable.”

Another focus of the project is to establish a record of LGBT presence from years past through the inclusion of “places of historical significance to the map that enrich our collective memory.” In paying tribute to the Greek poet Sappho, who lived during the 6th century B.C., one pin takes the “About” page’s declaration that “Queer history matters” much further than it was likely intended: “Here we are, 27 centuries later: dozens, hundreds of Amazons back to the roots, queering the beach, the rocks and the caves with our contented breaths. ‘Sweet mother, I can’t do my weaving— / Aphrodite has crushed me with desire / for a tender youth.’” 

In New Cairo, Egypt, a pin represents what is certainly the oldest love story on the map, marking “The tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, buried together in the 25th century B.C., thought to be the first same-sex couple in recorded history.” In a similar vein, a pin in Tivoli, Italy, reads: “Villa of Hadrian, Emperor of Rome between 117 to 138 A.D. After the death of his male lover, Antinous, Hadrian had him deified as a god.” Not too far away, a pin in Pompeii, Italy, references an ancient piece of graffiti that announces the (male) artist’s homosexuality, ending with a jubilant taunt: “Goodbye, wondrous femininity!”

Meanwhile, some pins focus on a different element of history, commemorating LGBT people who have passed away but whose loved ones live on. Stories of battles against HIV and AIDS feature prominently among them.

Though there are plenty of examples of sadness, loneliness, and heartbreak scattered across the endless stretch of queer space, the map is bright pink for a reason: The project embodies the mantra of “We’re here, we’re queer,” making the universal presence of LGBT people known while celebrating their continued survival even in places that actively seek to erase and destroy them. Whether they represent people, places, moments, or relationships, the predominant emotion conveyed by the innumerable pins is one of joy. 

In southern Cyprus, where there is no official recognition of same-sex marriage, one pin declares (in translation from a mix of Swedish and Greek) that “Our kiss was political activism. Our kiss was provocative. Our kiss attracted hatred. My love attracted hatred.”

That note embodies the Queering the Map’s goal of giving LGBT people visibility, especially in areas where representation is most rare, and therefore precious. Many pins were planted not because they mark a particularly striking act of rebellion, but simply because they provide evidence that LGBT people continue to exist in literally each and every corner of the map.