Queer Building in Cyberspace
Interview by: Lexi Adsit
On February 6th, 2012 I had the pleasure of interviewing Bronwyn Heaps, founder of Queersay.com. We met at a nice little cafe in Oakland and talked about Queer community, building, and websites.
Bronwyn: Today we are talking about Queersay.com a project I started 3 and a half years ago. The mission of Queersay is to build a safe community driven home for queer voices and experiences with business and service providers. It’s similar to yelp but we’re creating community in a way that yelp doesn’t find, we’re answering questions that heteronormative sites like yelp don’t answer. Those are our goals and I am the founder. I do have a business partner, volunteers, and a myriad of folks who have helped us along the way.
Lexi: Is this the first kind of Queer organizing you’ve done?
Bronwyn: I’ve volunteered with different organizations over the years, I think my first job was at the Pacific Center in Berkeley, I’ve definitely volunteered a lot and I was a bartender for a bit at the Lexington, which situated me in the hub of this Queer community in SF. We did some fundraisers there but it wasn’t a ton of community organizing there. About 3 years ago I embarked on this project and it’s been the bulk of what I’ve been doing besides earning a paycheck in social justice non-profits.
Lexi: Where did you get the idea for Queersay?
Bronwyn: So in 2008 my partner and I had graduated and I wanted to take us on a weekend spa vacation in Calistoga. So whenever we embark on a vacation the research begins and it’s all about narrowing it down to where we are going to be most likely to relax and be treated well. [In Calistoga, the research] was particularly empty, I really wanted to go to a specific place and I knew queers like us had been there before and I couldn’t find their voices and I would go to yelp and try to type in words like “gay friendly” and there was nothing. I know I wasn’t the first person to access this information and I started poking around and asking friends who were involved in computer programming and asking them what it would take for us to build this kind of yelp-like site for us. 2 and a half years later we have this built and the first beta version of it.
Lexi: Have you ever built a website before?
Bronwyn: No! This is a brand new thing, I wasn’t in the computer programming industry at all, I worked in the non-profits. I wasn’t situated in any business or tech communities. It was really from scratch. I look at the people who have built websites like this and have internet start-ups. It’s a lot of work to gather all the resources together and build a great product like a website with a specific audience and specific goals. We really built it up [though]. [We] had volunteers who just donated their time every week for a year or more, and then more and different volunteers would phase in and out.
Lexi: Can you tell me more about the community behind it?
Bronwyn: I tapped into folks who I thought might have ideas and be resourceful. From there we pieced together and we’ve all been Bay Area Queers. My business partner also lives in Oakland. We’ve had all different kinds of LGBT people involved from the Bay Area. Our focus has really been about launching it here and gaining momentum.
Lexi: Sounds good. What is your relation to Queer?
Bronwyn: I use it because it’s the easiest way to name the huge amorphous group of people that I want to talk about. I could use a super long string of letters or I could use the word Queer which says a lot and nothing at the same time. For lack of a better way [to] talk about it and try to reference people who are not straight or have strictly female/male sex and gender alignment that’s really what I mean. It’s definitely understood here in the Bay Area. My relationship is it’s the best we’ve got and it can conjure some kind of understanding, the kind of understand I’m generally looking for.
Lexi: Have you ever had a negative experience as a queer person consuming? What was it like?
Bronwyn: [Yes], I have negative experiences pretty regularly. It usually happens with my partner who is a genderqueer person and when you see her at one angle she looks like a very butch dyke and at another angle a very small man. It’s generally with her I get those experiences. We’ve experienced it regularly and it comes in subtle ways, like the most daily interactions we have are people generally ignore her, they’ll only look at me. She has bathroom problems just like so many other people. When we did end up going to Calistoga for our vacation, she was going to get a massage and getting naked and being vulnerable, she was nervous. That’s a fear for her and trying to find a place that can be a little more savvy and can recognize us that’s where we would choose to go. Just to avoid those uncomfortable, unsafe, and humiliating experiences as possible.
Lexi: Going back to the website, what are some key features that excite you?
Bronwyn: We’ve built this pretty intense filter search. It’s a queer-specific search engine, you can go in and as someone writes a review you can ‘tag’ the review with queer identity descriptors that might be particularly relevant. You also tag it to your own specific identity, which happens automatically. So you can search reviews by ‘queer’, ‘femme’, ‘lesbian’, ‘women’, etc. and you can find reviews that folks find helpful. We also have built a way for business owners to identity themselves as business owners, but [hiding] which businesses they own. [With this] we’re really trying to bring business owners into the community and Queer business owners to tell us what their experiences are. You can also follow people you are particularly interested in hearing what their experiences are. We have some feeds where you can look up recent reviews near you and we have some of those geographic and social media features. We [also] have a rolling slideshow where folks can contribute their photos and see themselves on the home page. [Right now] we’re most leaning towards building a mobile version, because when you’re out you want to hit a few buttons and send out a review.
Lexi: Where’d you get the pictures for the website?
Bronwyn: They’re all volunteers and friends. We really have a great group, we just need to expand it.
Lexi: What have been some of your biggest accomplishments?
Bronwyn: Engaging people, getting volunteers who have helped build it and make it possible to be where we are. Working with people who are passionate has hands-down been the best part. Making our little progressive successes, like finding someone who did the design essentially for free.
Lexi: Well those are my questions, anything you’d like to add?
Bronwyn: Yeah, the primary goal is to build a primary resource and map the world through our Queer perspective. The other side of that is that this is about owners and business owners who want to serve their Queer community. It’s also about sharing and getting people to share their experiences. We hope to grow this resource and make it accessible to everyone.
You can check out queersay.com for yourself, check out queersay merchandise, and share your experiences now!