The distance from Damascus to Edinburgh to Ohio totals about 10,000 miles, but for two straight American men pretending to be lesbian bloggers covering different continents around the world, the distance from the truth was immeasurable.
A conversation between Clinton Fein and Tanya Domi.
Clinton: LezGetReal for a second. There are so many layers to this story that I don’t really know where to begin. In a nutshell, a State Department investigation into the sudden disappearance of Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, a widely read Syrian woman blogging as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by “A Straight Creep in Edinburgh,” Tom MacMaster, who is actually American.
In a half-hearted, non-apologetic apology, MacMaster, a Middle East activist from Georgia USA, claimed that despite leading everyone to believe he was Amina, he was dealing with very real issues and giving voice to things that needed to be spoken about. “I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading 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.” Seemingly unaware of the extent to which his elaborate hoax was diverting attention away from real issues facing actual Syrians in an increasingly brutal crackdown on protesters.
Then it turns out that the person who helped solve the case because her suspicion was aroused by the IP address of the “A Gay Girl in Damascus” site (although the State Department’s findings would have anyway), was Paula Brooks, the founder of the LezGetReal web site, who helped launch “A Gay Girl in Damascus”. Only, it turns out Paula Brooks is really a 58- year-old retired military veteran and construction worker, Bill Graber. (The picture of him that I used in the graphic for this article was provided to the Washington Post by Graber. but who verified that it’s him?)
Tanya: Clinton, I do not know where to begin on the LGR and the “Gay Girl from Damascus” blog hoaxes. I am filled with such a range of emotions about this hoax—rage, anger, exasperation, shock and some disbelief. I mean, two white heterosexual American men who had the audacity to pose as lesbians. There is such disrespect and mockery in their actions and the presumption that they could pass as “gay girls” and in the course of propagating these blogs, played with women’s hearts and minds.
In the case of “Amina Abdallah”, MacMaster, the man behind the faux Syrian lesbian, has cruelly played all of us to be fools in his sport, with lesbians as his game. Bill Graber, who posed as “Paula Brooks” on LezGetReal blog, as a deaf lesbian mother—what a con! I do agree with feminist psychotherapist Susie Orbach who has called these lesbian personas a “double inversion”—exploiting the ‘illegitimacy’ of the person they were impersonating to give themselves legitimacy”.
Clinton: “We Are All Khaled Said,” one of the social media activism success stories, to a large degree responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and the blossoming of the Arab Spring in the Middle East said this in response to this whole sordid affair: “I think this hoax is a stab in the back to Online activists and especially to those who need to hide their identity to protect themselves from dictators. I believe that many people’s trust in social activism have been shaken by this hoax.”
I don’t even want to get into the whole pathology of heterosexual men posing as lesbians – yet!
Tanya: Interestingly enough, I am reading Arabist Joseph Massad’s tour de force book titled Desiring Arabs at the moment, in which the author posits that “the Prophet prohibited suhaq, or sapphism, just as the Qu’an prohibited adultery”. Knowing about such prohibitions under Sharia law, for Ammina publicly identifying as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” struck me as so, so audacious—a death wish, if true. And, unlikely, as well. It immediately raised a red flag to me. I was intrigued and decided to watch her alleged kidnapping play out, figuring if this woman really existed, she would most likely be murdered, execution style by zealot religious police.
And let me just add that I have always, always been uncomfortable with the LGR’s tagline: “A gay girl’s guide to the world”. “A gay girl” is not the customary adjective and noun used by lesbians to refer to themselves. Younger women commonly call themselves “queer” and older women like myself call ourselves “lesbian”. But ‘gay girls’? I always thought that tag line was a bit off and odd—sort of discomforting. I fortunately was never pulled into the LGR and it never called out to me.
Clinton: Samya from Muslimah Media Watch wrote a brilliant essay as to why this is damaging to the cause of global online activism and Arab women. And while I agree with her insights, I don’t agree with her conclusions, because with both “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and LezGetReal there were signs. Signs that we chose to ignore. And so I don’t think we get off the hook that easily without looking at what those were and why and how we missed them.
The first time I was exposed to LezGetReal was on Twitter, where we followed each other and briefly communicated. I have no idea who was managing their Twitter account. Although I found the word “lez” to be incongruent with the content, which I thought was sincere and smart actually – David Kato, Uganda, The Family. The same way you were uncomfortable with the LGR’s tagline. I have lots of friends who are lesbians and I have never, not once, heard any of them use the term “lez” to identify themselves. I always thought it was either a kind of derogatory term or one that you would see on porn sites to titillate straight men. Now it kind of makes sense in a way, as does the irony of the “GetReal.” It seems to me now the very name LezGetReal was a taunt – how could we have missed it?
A good few lesbian bloggers I have read in the last couple of days are understandably pissed. People are calling for global regulation to prevent this kind of hoax from happening again. Samaya wrote “[T]he MacMaster case should give rise to more serious global regulations to ensure that the Web, widely acclaimed as a window of opportunity for women aspiring for social and political advancement, would not be used for extortion and defamation.”
I could not disagree more. What we need are smarter tools that enable us to authenticate voices and better filters, both technological and organic, not a global Big Brother. The need for anonymity trumps our desire to accept anything at face value. Yes, this may be a setback for global activism and Arab women in the short term, but in retrospect, this didn’t pass the smell test, and we should have caught on sooner Period.
Tanya: As a feminist, I think people should read Samya’s essay to learn why it is so important to create space for them in the cyber public square –yield to vital Arab women’s voices during this seismic moment in Middle East history. So much of women’s lives are spent behind the doors of purdah in the Middle East. Like lesbians and gays, Middle East women are forced to hide by custom and law—finding an outlet online is vital to them, like breathing air. Therefore it is so shameful that MacMaster usurped a cyber platform by posing as a “gay girl” for his own amusement and uninformed purposes.
Nonetheless, I do share your opinion Clinton that we should not regulate blogs or the net to prevent these hijackings. Power put into the hands of a censor is quite dangerous and today’s hero could be tomorrow’s enemy. No regulating entity should have that kind of power. That is why we must build resilient democracies that provide multiple opportunities to make known these transgressions in the public square and let the chips fall where they may.
Clinton: McMasters and Graber are both fraudulent, smug, self-important assholes with major issues and bizarre motivations I think need exploring, (which we will) but let’s own our willingness to be so successfully duped. Discernment is our responsibility, not the people creating content authentic enough to fool us.
Tanya: LGR is now a damaged brand and should be taken off life support and shut down. The key bloggers at LGR have seriously damaged credibility, perhaps irreparably harmed by the revelation that Paula Brooks never existed. Their claims that they never knew Paula Brooks were Bill Graber ring hollow. Pull the plug.
(Image: Clinton Fein)
Clinton Fein is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and First Amendment activist, best-known for his 1997 First Amendment Supreme Court victory against United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Fein has also gained international recognition for his Annoy.com site, and for his work as a political artist. Fein is on the Board of Directors of the First Amendment Project, “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition.” Fein’s political and privacy activism have been widely covered around the world. His work also led him to be nominated for a 2001 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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