by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Less than a week after 'Gay Girl in Damascus' was allegedly kidnapped by Syrian security officers, 'she' turned out to be a straight American man from the state of Georgia studying in Scotland.
On June 10, Tom MacMaster, revealed he had created the online persona of 'Amina Arraf' - a pro-democracy Syrian Lesbian. On June 6, MacMaster had posted a fictional account of Arraf's abduction by Syrian authorities.
The same day, one of the editors of the Lesbian blog LezGetReal also revealed that he is Bill Graber, a straight Ohio man who used the persona of 'Paula Brooks.'
A master's student in medieval studies and an activist for democracy in the Middle East, MacMaster used his knowledge of Arab cultures to create a convincing story of a young Lesbian in Damascus.
He fooled such reputable news sources such as The Washington Post, CNN, Time magazine, and the British newspaper The Guardian, all of which featured email interviews with 'Arraf.'
MacMaster apparently also fooled Graber, who reposted many of 'Arraf's' blog posts on LezGetReal, and helped to promote 'her' as an international media sensation.
The first reports of 'Arraf's' kidnapping, although actually fictional, sparked a very real international online campaign for her release.
In his initial admission, MacMaster was only somewhat apologetic, saying he was surprised by the response to 'Arraf's' apparent plight. His intentions were good, he insisted.
'I never expected this level of attention,' he wrote in a posting allegedly coming from Istanbul, Turkey.
'The events [in the Middle East] are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.'
MacMaster's revelation was not well received by the news media he systematically deceived or by the international LGBT community mobilizing to help someone they believed to be one of their own, or by pro-democracy Syrians who felt betrayed by the revelation that an iconic figure was some foreigner's creative writing project.
'He completely stole the limelight of real LGBT bloggers and activists in the Middle East and diverted it in a negative way,' said Dan Littauer of the website Gay Middle East.
Daniel Nassar, the pseudonym of a Syrian man affiliated with Gay Middle East, said MacMaster had put all Gay Syrians in danger.
'If I was living in a country where I could sue this person because he has damaged me and damaged my cause then I would,' he said.
'This deception has sown confusion, distraction and absorbed energy and attention at a time when real people are in danger in Syria and in other countries in the region,' said Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada blog.
The universal criticism prompted MacMaster to issue a second round of apologies.
'I never meant to hurt anyone,' he wrote. 'I am really truly sorry and I feel awful about this. I betrayed the trust of a great many people, the friendship that was honestly and openly offered to me, and played with the emotions of others unfairly.'
Graber's apology followed the same pattern. On June 10 he told the Associated Press that he set up LezGetReal to promote Gay and Lesbian rights. He said he feared he would not be taken seriously if he blogged as a straight man.
Graber also claimed to have helped unmask MacMaster by tracking his posts to computer servers in Edinburgh.
'He would have got away with it if I hadn't been such a stand-up guy,' Graber told AP.
'LezGetReal was not meant to be deceitful or con anyone,' he said. Graber is no longer associated with LezGetReal.
In an apology to its readers, one of the other owners, Linda Carbonell, wrote, 'The past three days have been devastating for all of us on LezGetReal. 'Paula Brooks' has been a part of our lives for three years now.'
Iman Qureshi, a Pakistani Lesbian writer, wrote that MacMaster and Graber seem to be motivated by a very distinct form of egotism.
'I think the rise of identity politics - a concerted effort to give marginalized people a voice - has made some white heterosexual men a little paranoid or insecure,' she wrote, 'so they invent an oppression and position themselves as victims. I would assume MacMaster felt ostracized from his 'own people,' as it were, and as a result took on a persona in which he felt he could be heard without criticism. This seems to me to be a hero complex that's really a very smug delusion - 'Look at me, look at how I'm standing up for oppressed people.'
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