Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not All Queer Bloggers are Hoaxes

Last week I (as well as my friend Kara Leva, it seems) was contacted by Elif Kayi for a story on the opinions and experiences of real queer bloggers following the cases of a Gay Girl in Damascus and — both instances where straight men were masquerading as queer woman online. I’m republishing Elif’s article (originally published online at EMAJ magazine) in full below:

Everybody has heard about “her.” For a few days, “she” had become the most famous queer woman in the Middle East, maybe even in the whole world. Amidst other worrying news, such as the violent repression carried out by the Syrian regime against segments of the population, the abduction of “queer blogger” Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, presumbably by a group of armed men supposedly members the Baath Party security services or a militia, provoked a massive outcry amongst the international gay community. Support pages were immediatly created in mainstream social media such as Facebook, with slogans such as “Free Syrian Blogger Amina Abdallah a.k.a “Gay Girl in Damascus”.

Bloggers and journalists active in social media closely followed the story, which once again reminded us of the vulnerability of bloggers in some countries, when they try to inform about their situation in those places. In this case, the blogger was said to be a young lesbian woman, describing her everyday life. Some people thought that her story would bring to light a reality often hidden: the everyday life of gay people. And despite the turmoil surrounding the “abduction,” the story was in fact  revealing an issue to the general public, including readers who might normally be hostile, or at least indifferent to such stories. At least, it was news.

This is how Tom MacMaster, a Scottish student from Edinburgh, based in Istanbul, tried to justify his actions when it was finally revealed that the blog “A gay girl in Damascus” had been created not by “Amina” but by Mr. MacMaster.  After the hoax  was discovered, MacMaster wrote in his blog: “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts in this blog are true and not misleading regarding the situation on the ground. I do not believe I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues I feel strongly about.”

Shortly after this, another hoax was revealed. A 58-year-old retired construction worker from Ohio, Bill Graber, admitted to the Washington Post that he had run the US-based lesbian website ““ under the name of Paula Brooks.

The gay community’s condemnation was merciless. For example, wrote: “Shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news from their country. (…) We have to deal with more difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put all of us in danger, and made us afraid to continue our (…) activism.”

These cases have cast extreme suspicion on blogs and bloggers. Even our magazine EMAJ received this comment after the publication of a post by the reporter Jasmin Roman: “Touching posts, but after all the fake bloggers being discovered, how do we know you are not like the rest? We have fake “pro”, fake “against” and now we have an “in the middle.” This “in the middle” sets quite well with the apologists in the West… Anyway, “Gay Girl” was interesting to read, even though “she” was a “he.” Your stuff is also interesting to read, and from the audio interview we know at least that you are a “she”.”

But getting back to the “queer  blogosphere,” let us not evade the fact that there are often people who question the accuracy of information published in blogs, who minimize the problems described, who analyze them with a socio-moralist biais before getting to the point. So what could be better than the discovery of  ”fake blogs” to discredit blogs in general?

Adrineh Macaan is a young woman, currently based in Armenia, working for an NGO based in Yerevan that publishes news online in four languages -Armenian, Russian, English and Turkish. Since 2008 she has run her own blog: “My blog is about my experiences as a lesbian Armenian woman originally from Toronto, Canada, but now living in Yerevan, Armenia. I write about my own experiences and things as I see them. I try to connect different issues and build bridges between communities, topics and countries. I started my blog in 2008 when I was planning a summer holiday trip to Paris, Amsterdam and Yerevan — three cities close to my heart. A colleague suggested I start a blog to document my travels and as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends back home. Since then the blog has evolved and the focus is more on local issues, being a repat in Armenia, being queer in Armenia and so forth.”

As to whether she has encountered problems running her blog, Adrineh says: “I haven't encountered any difficulties (no hate mail or inappropriate comments left on the blog). On the contrary, I’ve only received positive feedback!” This is also the opinion of another female Armenian blogger, Kara Leva, currently studying law at the French University in Yerevan and involved in volunteer activities at the Women’s Resource Center in Armenia. “As I’m a social activist and liberal feminist, my blog is about social problems in Armenia, such as the uneducated class, which Armenias call “qyartu”, about violence — domestic violence, violence against women and child abuse — and about incidents in my life which I think about and discuss in my blog with my 1000-plus readers! I write about many other things which concern me personally. But I’ve never received hate mail. Sometimes I have had unfriendly comments under my posts, which I edit and post because everyone has their own point of view about different issues. I’ve never faced difficulties running my blog and so far I’ve received the support of my journalist and blogger friends.”

Regarding the reaction of friends and relatives, Kara emphasizes the positive impact of her blog: “They read my blog and start to understand, feel and  know me better: how I see my life, as well as the daily social life of my country." There is one limitation, however: "I never write things about politics.”

Not everyone in Adrineh’s circle knows about her blog: “My immediate family and close friends know about it, as do those who follow me on Twitter, but my extended family or anyone who I haven’t come out to, doesn’t. It’s a fine line: I don’t intentionally evade telling  them — for example if someone asked me directly, I would tell them I have a blog, but I don’t go out of my way to tell them about it either. There is also the issue of language since my blog is exclusively in English,  and  not everyone has Facebook and Twitter or reads blogs. Even close family members who know I have a blog don’t read it regularly, so sometimes I send them a link to a post I wrote so they know what’s going on with me.”

About the everyday problems they face as lesbians in Armenia, Kara depicts a rather difficult situation: “I’m always facing problems like hate speeches by homophobic people around me and the no less homophobic Armenian society. I have fewer rights and I can’t express myself and my opinions as a lesbian. I always feel the psychological violence of the society in which I live.” Adrineh published an article about the issue in the queer Arab magazine “Bekhsoos” in 2010, in which she stated: “In a country where the rights of LGBT people are not protected, there’s no legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBT folks, there’s never been a pride parade and no establishments are eagerly posting up rainbow stickers in their front windows, an out gay venue is hard to come by. But that doesn’t mean we don’t exist.”

And so the internet is one way to exist, at least for the general public… As many other bloggers, Adrineh was shocked about the revelation of the story of the “hoaxes”: “After the first case came out, I was appalled, but when I heard about the second case, I thought, who would’ve thought that the editor of a lesbian-focused website would turn out to be a man as well! A gay male blogger friend of mine said he didn’t know that being a lesbian blogger had become fashionable! That made me laugh. Who knew I was in vogue?”. But seriously, I was quite offended and surprised at MacMaster’s response, that he didn’t know he would hurt people or that things would get so out of hand. What were you thinking would happen, I want to ask. Apparently, both men wrote as women in order to be taken more seriously, which I also find surprising since as far as I can remember it’s always been women who’ve written as men to be taken more seriously.”

“It was the manipulation of a man who was using the pictures of an unknown girl.  Had the girl whose pictures were being misused not gone public, people all over the world might have continued to believe this story about a girl supposedly kidnapped for her sexual orientation,” said Kara. She added, “But I can assure you this story had no influence on my blog. I think this is because I haven’t come out officially.”

All kidding aside, Adrineh concludes: “In the end I think these men did more harm than good. Even if they had good intentions, as MacMaster claimed he had, it doesn’t matter now, because what they did will have an effect on anonymous bloggers and activists who need to protect their identity while reporting on crucial issues. Though I have to say that being anonymous is preferable to posing as someone else: at least in the case of the former, you know that the person is anonymous (who can be male or female, straight or gay), but in the case of the latter, you are deceived about that person’s identity.”

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