Queering the map in lockdown

On the renewed meaning of archiving queer space in lockdown.

Where does the past live? More specifically, where does our past live?

For the most part, our personal histories remain confined to the space between our ears, the assortment of knick knacks one can fit into a bedroom, and the internet. This small and frenetic rendering of who we are and what we’ve loved feels woefully insufficient and suffocating all at once. Nowhere is this more true than in lockdown, as the slice of the world open to us shrinks and we begin to spend much more time alone with our thoughts.

The internet has allowed the modernisation of how we charter ourselves in spaces beyond inscribing initials in the softening bark of trees and in particular, gay geographical representation beyond rainbow crossings in various Inner West suburbs. Queering the Map is a cartography of global LGBT life. Users from around the world can add their own memories, stories, and experiences of queerness to the digital map with the click of a button. In this way, the site promises to “preserve our histories and unfolding realities, which continue to be invalidated, contested, and erased.”

The map takes a while to load when I first click on the site: The shape of North America is traced by thousands of pinpoints, state and national borders obscured by a litany of queer experiences. I quickly scroll down to Australia. There is a smattering of pin drops across the centre while the coastal capitals are invisible under a smudgy black pile of entries. Unsurprisingly, King Street is rendered as a major arterial road.  

“I was a big sapphic mess here!”, exclaims someone in Marrickville. In another entry over Rockwood, the author regrets never telling the deceased how they felt. Despite all of this being publicly available, it still feels like betraying a secret to commission it to words. These memories are not mine to divulge nor is this space.

Space (by space I mean the physical world) is always a thousand things at once. Political, sentimental, fraught, and dripping with the meaning supplanted on it by generations and cultures over thousands of years. Any map attempting to capture space in its entirety will inevitably fall short, and the beauty of Queering the Map lies in the simplicity of the idea. The entries scattered across the map feel anything but complete: merely hinting at the enormity of the queer experience. The sentimentality of space hides itself in plain sight, waiting silently at intersections and train stations, in national parks and under the roofs of unassuming suburban homes. For many queer people, it is this inconspicousness that makes space such a powerful vessel of memory. 

Chronicling queer life is nothing new. Since 1978, the Australian Queer Archives has built an extensive collection of LGBT history, swelling to six hundred shelf metres in their Melbourne headquarters. These fragments of the past are vital to preserving a history of love, resistance, and resilience, though they are intangible in the midst of lockdowns across the Eastern seaboard. We must find the history we cannot hold elsewhere. 

When Queering the Map went live in 2017, none of its creators could have imagined the way physical space would come to haunt us in a few years time, the pandemic rendering the world outside our homes elusive and often illegal to visit. Time outside is painstakingly measured to comply with health orders and heavily regulated borders sneer in the face of those who have ever loved anyone, anywhere else in the world.

In the last nine weeks, I doubt I have travelled anywhere further than a ten minute car ride from my home. I scroll across the suburbs I onced strolled—Croydon, Camperdown, Parramatta, Balmain. I can’t hope to see or touch them and I’m not sure when I will be able to again. For now, this world is entirely virtual. 

The past lives in computers and brain cells and at the bottom of jammed bedside drawers. Accessing it, particularly in the form of wistful lockdown reminiscing, can be incredibly lonely.

Queering the Map is an antidote to that. One minute you’re amazed that someone else had their life changed on the same suburban station platform as you did, the next you’re reeling at the sordid accounts of encounters in campus bathrooms. It is a reminder that history is collective, and in a finite space, overlapping. Even in the cramped, virtual world we find ourselves living in, the ground underfoot is alive with memory.

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