Why Did Tom MacMaster Choose to be “A Gay Girl” Blogging from Damascus?

So the whole thing turned out to be a hoax.

Throughout the last few weeks, I have been a regular reader of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” especially during the current unrest in Syria. As Sara wrote in her post, “A Gay Girl in Damascus Tells It Like It Is,” the presumed author of the blog, Amina Abdullah, “is being celebrated as the unlikely voice of Syrian revolution.” The blogger wrote about the daily frustrations she faced as a 35-year-old lesbian living in Damascus.

Tom MacMaster

Tom MacMaster.

But after reading the apology by the actual author—a white, Western man named Tom MacMaster—where he admitted masquerading as a lesbian Syrian woman, I started worrying about the image of female Arab bloggers, who believe social media hold a great promise for carrying their voice to a larger audience. For me, the case provokes questions not only about an American man posing as a lesbian Arab woman, but also about the very idea of using social media to bring damage to already-fragile images of Arab women in the public sphere.

Though some Arab and international media outlets were skeptical about the real identity of the Syrian blogger, others have addressed the issue in the broad context of the current transitions in the region, where reforms are expected to embrace not only political authoritarianism, but social and cultural taboos as well. For the past few years, the issue of homosexuality in a conservative Arab world has come to surface mainly in cyberspace as conventional media continue to be adamantly opposed to dealing with those taboos.  For example, Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags were formed to support the fictitious Syrian blogger when rumors spread about her detention by security forces.

I found MacMaster’s confession to the Guardian and his statement that the whole thing was about him attempting to enhance his writing conversation skills disgusting! Why in the world would an American heterosexual chose to pose as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” blogging for the last four months?  Is it a matter of adventurous sensationalism carried out for the purpose of fun, or is it yet another evidence of the validity of conspiracy theory that sees Western policies as detrimental to Arab-Islamic culture and traditions?

In her post on the February 21, 2011, Amina wrote: “I live in Damascus, Syria. It’s a repressive police state. Most LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible. But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo. Am I crazy? Maybe.” Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, and is punishable by at least a three-year imprisonment. Sexual orientation is not an open subject for discussion in the Arab world. Syria is being increasingly perceived as a police state with little regard for human rights. So MacMaster wasn’t telling us anything new.

The MacMaster hoax will most likely be used to beef up skepticism among conspiracy theorists about “Western plots” to destroy our cherished national and cultural values.  I believe Tom MacMaster owes a big apology not just to his readers, but to Arab women in particular.

The Arab world has found great fulfillment in social media. In Saudi Arabia, they are organizing Facebook campaigns to campaign for the right to drive. Women in Egypt are asserting bolder and more forthcoming attitudes in the context of the revolution through social media.  Virtual space is turning into the new arena for Arab women’s articulation of their identities in the 21st century.

The tragedy of the MacMaster hoax is that it shows how social media, long glorified as tools of empowerment for Arab women, could be used to bring more havoc on Arab women’s reputations. Currently, there are no legal mechanisms that might be enforced to hold MacMaster accountable for his abominable act.  For the benefit of the doubt, the case should be taken only as an individual conduct that would certainly provoke condemnations, even in the West.  But the 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.

  • Humayra

    I agree that unfortunately, this hoax will be used by conservatives to justify ignoring LGTBQ Muslim voices, or dismissing them as a “plot to destroy Islam from within.”

    This is especially problematic since the internet is now the main public forum where many LGBTQ Muslims worldwide (at least, those who have the privilege of online access) can tell their stories and express their views publicly. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the internet for many LGBTQ Muslims who are in the process of coming out, or trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith, or just seeking reassurance that they are not alone and there are others out there with similar experiences. Internet forums, blogs, queer Muslim org sites and webzines, etc are lifelines for many. The internet is a key resource for many family and friends of LGBTQ Muslims as well.

    Hoaxes like this cause severe damage to the trust which such virtual communities depend on in order to function. For those who think that this was a “plot against Islam”–one might as well (and with more justification) argue that it was a plot against queer Muslims. Not that I think it was, but its impact will probably be much the same.

  • Humayra

    BTW, another well-known lesbian blogger–not a Muslim this time–has also been exposed as a white North American male:


    While it’s well known that some men get their kicks from fantasizing about what lesbians do in bed, men pretending to be lesbian activist bloggers is new…. I presume that there’s some erotic motivation in this.

    Anyway, the “Gay girl in Damascus” hoax is part of a much larger picture, which seems to be related more to the lesbian angle than the Muslim/Arab one.

  • http://clintonfein.com Clinton Fein

    Great sentiments and insight – up until the very last paragraph. “But the 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.”

    No, no, no! We need 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 sort term, but in retrospect, this didn’t pass the smell test, and we should have caught on sooner Period. McMasters is a fraudulent, smug, self-important asshole, but let’s own our willingness to be so successfully duped.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    McMasters hoax will certainly give the dictator Assad something to gloat about (according to him an example of a Western plot to destabilize his regime exposed). The Assad regime could have also been going around arresting countless innocent Syrian women in order to “catch” Amina Arraf before the hoax was revealed. McMasters even dragged a real-life woman into this mess by fraudulently posting a Croatian woman’s Facebook pics as that of his “character”. It doesn’t matter in this instance whether his intentions are good or not he just lived up to the old saying, “the road to hell can sometimes be paved by good intentions”. This whole incident reminds me of the time people fell for the “Blair Witch legend” back when the movie came out and successfully tricked people into believing its story via the internet. The difference of course being that Blair Witch only led to more people going and watching a movie while McMasters’ stunt could have put innocent lives in danger.

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  • Linda Binda

    Um.. Oh, my god…

    “McMasters even dragged a real-life woman into this mess by fraudulently posting a Croatian woman’s Facebook pics as that of his “character”. ”

    If he really did that, that ought to be grounds for suing, right? That’s like identity theft.

    And yes, in a recent L.A. Times article (not linking to him, sorry), Jonah Goldberg, one conservative, has already made the argument that lesbian civil-rights-minded Muslims don’t really exist — they’re a figment of the imagination of liberals who want to prove that Islam is not a backwards, hardline faith. Thanks, dude! x.x Your elaborate fanfiction really helped Muslim feminists the world over!

    *shakes head*

  • http://www.muslimahmediawatch.org Krista

    @ Linda – That’s something I’ve been thinking about too. I remember seeing an article or blog post when people were starting to seriously question “Amina’s” identity, and a lot of the comments were along the lines of, “oh well, I knew that a progressive/gay/feminist Muslim was too good to be true” or “yeah, we should have known, no real Muslims are THAT open-minded” and the like. Ugh.

    And yes, he really did use another woman’s picture, and I think he’s admitted to that quite openly. I would think that there would definitely be grounds for some kind of legal action there.

  • Dina

    To my knowledge, there would only be grounds for legal action for the concrete individual whose right to her own photo he has abused, not for anyone else (unless with valid consent according to UK laws to represent the rightful complainant).

    May I ask for you to clarify what you mean with “more havoc on Arab women’s reputations” and “defamation”, though? The way I read you is you are talking about lesbianism being adverse to arab womens reputations and being “defamatory”. I do not agree if this is what you say!

  • http://www.muslimahmediawatch.org Krista

    @ Dina: Yes, that’s what I meant when I referred to legal action (in response to Linda’s comment) – that the woman whose image was taken would have grounds for legal action, not anyone else. Sorry if my comment wasn’t clear! I think even that is relevant though, because MacMaster and others who defend him have at times claimed that no one did anything really “wrong,” that it’s really just the fault of the rest of us for being so gullible. (Of course, I disagree with that defence for a few reasons, but the use of that woman’s picture is particularly striking/obviously not okay.)

  • Linda Binda

    Sorry for the late post:

    Irony of ironies. He’s considering suing for “copyright violation” against a blogger who, in her own way, is essentially warning everyone that he’s a hack author and everyone, from talk show hosts to *book publishers,* should stay far, far away from his manuscript. (Yes, he was book deal-shopping before all of the hit the fan. Disgusting.)