/ 17 June 2011

Gay girls in the web of hoaxes

The writer claimed to be “the ultimate outsider”, a 35-year-old lesbian who had lived as an Arab Muslim in the United States and was now living as a Sunni Muslim in Syria.

On her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari described her romantic relationships, involvement in street protests and her father’s ferocious response when the security ­services came to call for her. The site’s audience built up quickly after its February launch and, when it was reported that Al Omari had been abducted from a Damascus street by armed men, campaigns for her release began immediately.

So it came as a surprise to find that Al Omari was in fact a white heterosexual married man called Tom MacMaster, who comes from the United States and now lives in Edinburgh. Admitting the hoax on Sunday, MacMaster was initially bullish, writing that he didn’t believe he had “harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”.

But by the next day, with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaigners in the Middle East and beyond expressing disgust and some saying they could have taken significant risks in asking questions about Al Omari’s safety, he was considerably more apologetic. He wrote at length about his reasons for creating Al Omari (he enjoyed writing; he was “trying to enlighten people”) and apologised to a number of people by name.

These included the woman whose online photos he had stolen to depict Al Omari, the woman with whom he had apparently been having a deeply involved online relationship and someone called Paula Brooks, who set up a website called LezGetReal (“A Gay Girl’s View on the World”) in 2008, giving “Amina” an early platform.

Then the story took another twist. Brooks was not who she seemed either. In fact, the woman who was purportedly both lesbian and deaf — explaining why she could not talk to reporters on the phone — was actually a retired US air force pilot from Ohio called Bill Graber.

He told the Washington Post that he had set up his site with “the best of intentions” and had used it to argue against the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ­policy. But this defence was greeted with anger and astonishment by many who had believed him. One commenter on LezGetReal wrote that he had “completely delegitimised us actual queer bloggers” and Louise Carolin, the deputy editor of lesbian lifestyle magazine Diva, said she was furious about both hoaxes. “They remind me of the cancer blogs that have been revealed as hoaxes,” she said, “some of which have been a deliberate financial fraud, and others just an emotional one.

“Many lesbian women feel very isolated — especially if they’re from a minority ethnic or religious background where it’s difficult for them to come out — and the internet is somewhere they go for support and a sense of community. [MacMaster’s] blog tapped into a lot of very real experiences for people in Syria and the Middle East, and also people here who identified with it.”

So why did they do it? It is not the first time that men have impersonated lesbians online. There have been ugly cases of men posing as lesbians to entice women to send them naked pictures; women who run lesbian forums have written of their suspicions that men are infiltrating their sites; dating experts have warned lesbian clients that they cannot know whether the people they are corresponding with online are women “or a male internet porn or sex addict looking for a thrill”.

Carolin said: “It’s very, very common for men to set up log-ins for internet forums run by, or for, gay or bisexual women. The motivation is usually clearly sexual or malicious, so they’re usually spotted very fast by other users and deleted by moderators.”

In the case of MacMaster and Graber, sexual gratification does not seem to have been the prime motive. As Carolin said: “MacMaster and Graber are unusual in that they chose to operate with such a huge sense of entitlement at such a high level, not just for a brief kick but apparently under the delusion that they were doing something good for lesbians. And they weren’t just infiltrating a website or forum but actually running the operations themselves.”

Both cases, said the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell, could be seen as a portrait of male dominance — men needing to infiltrate discussions where they would not otherwise have an obvious, and certainly not an authoritative, place. She said that, when it came to MacMaster, “he clearly doesn’t have a clue about what the politics of identity has tried to reveal, which is, first, that we are not all white men and, second, that white men are always treated as the supreme identity.

Here he is doing the same thing — claiming the virtue of representing a repressed condition in a repressed part of the world, deciding that he is the person who will give that voice.”

Although there are concerns that these cases will undermine the lesbian blogosphere, creating a question mark over all who write about gay issues online, Campbell suspects it will not do too much lasting damage.

“Internet life is full of hoaxes,” she said, “it’s full of virtuality. Lesbian bloggers who are authentic will continue and all these others will fall away.” —