LGBT blogs went aflame last week after someone claiming to be the relative of Amina Arraf—the Syrian-American blogger behind A Gay Girl In Damascus—said Arraf had been kidnapped by Syrian secret police. We held off on reporting the story because we smelled bullshit, and it turns out we were right.
This “gay girl” living in an oppressive regime turned out to be some white, middle class, heterosexual, 40-year-old, American, medieval studies masters student named Tom McMaster. He blogged the entire thing from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. So, off with his head, right?
Here’s Mr. McMaster’s admission on A Gay Girl In Damascus in a post entitled “Apology to readers”:
I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not m?sleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.
I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.
This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.
Interestingly, McMaster turned off commenting on the blog, probably to avoid hearing the torrential shitstorm of criticism he totally deserves.
Last week we said that whether A Gay Girl In Damascus was real or not, the blog at least raised an accurate portrayal of LGBT life in Syria. Here’s where McMaster’s went wrong though:
First off, why use your blog to fabricate an international human rights issue? The fictional Amina Arraf had dual American and Syrian citizenship and by having Syrian secret police kidnap her, McMaster basically dared the American State Department to needlessly get involved in a hoax that could have had serious diplomatic consequences.
McMaster also passed of pictures of Jelena Lecic—a Croatian administrator at the Royal College of Physicians in London—as the likeness of Arraf herself, committing the identity theft of an innocent person to perpetuate his hoax.
For weeks, journalists, bloggers, and human rights advocates tried to track down Ms. Arraf. But when initially questioned about his involvement, McMaster denied it. He only came clean when the evidence continued to stack up against him. Why continue the charade and not just come clean unless he enjoyed the game of it all?
An lastly, his “apology” to readers isn’t an apology at all. If anything, he feels completely justified in doing so and sees no harm whatsoever in his actions.
But the next queer Middle-Easterner to cry for help on her blog will most likely receive a lethal amount of skepticism while people figure out whether or not to believe her. Now anti-gay foes can say that liberals have to fabricate stories just to bolster queer rights worldwide which dilutes the power of real abuse accounts happening in Syria this very moment. The Syrian government can now claim that any reports of real human rights abuses in the region could just be a potential American fraud or over-reactive reporting of a hoax rather than the real deal.
McMaster says “The narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading.” But if that were true, there would have been no need for all the lies and falsehoods he used to raise his story’s stakes.
In reality, McMaster has potentially done more to hurt the LGBT and Syrian causes and his non-apology shows just how justified he feels in doing so.
The queer journalists at Gay Middle East who often risks their lives to give accurate coverage of LGBT rights in the region agree that McMaster put countless lives in danger:
To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really… Shame on you!!!…
Because of you, Mr. MacMaster, a lot of the real activists in the LGBT community became under the spotlight of the authorities in Syria. These activists, among them myself, had to change so much in their attitude and their lives to protect themselves from the positional harm your little stunt created. You have, sir, put a lot of lives, mine and some friends included, in harm’s way so you can play your little game of fictional writing…
McMaster has said that he will speak to the media later today. He should expect a mass of angry villagers wielding torches and pitchforks.
Though on a lighter note, one NPR commenter summarized the hoax this way: “Darn it. Doesn’t that just happen all the time? You meet a hot girl online, exchange a few photos, and it turns out she is a dude in Georgia!”