This week, two prominent lesbian internet figures were revealed to be American men. Amina Arraf, the supposed Syrian blogger, was revealed to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old heterosexual American man studying in Edinburgh. A day later, the editor of the American lesbian news site Lez Get Real, was revealed to be a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber using his wife’s name as a pseudonym.
There have been other similar cases of people writing under assumed identities to talk about certain issues. Fake memoirs are nothing new, and it shouldn’t surprise us that in the age of the internet, fake memoirs have turned into fake blogs. Motivations vary, I’m sure. At least in the case of the two blogs in question, both authors swear that they had the best intentions at heart, that they wanted to draw attention to an issue that they felt was really important, and felt that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t write from within the community.
MacMaster says that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading 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.”
Similarly, Graber says that “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.”
In a great satirical article, one white male blogger responds by pointing out that “If you really have something unique and important to report on, your white male-ness will not get in the way of your being heard. In most cases, it will be an advantage, as bylines and television appearances testify every day.”
Seriously, people. Let’s get real. When you write as someone else, and pass it off as your own life experience, that’s a form of fraud, and it actually damages the cause that you’re writing about for several reasons.
The first reason is that when a supposed figurehead of a particular group is outed as not being a member of that group, it calls into question the legitimacy and authenticity of everyone else who is writing from within that group. If Blogger A is False, then why shouldn’t Bloggers B, C, D, and E also be False? Those remaining bloggers then have to work twice as hard to prove that they are who they say they are, and readers are left wondering if, since one public identity was fabricated, some or all of the information written by that person was also untrue. And while both MacMaster and Graber seemed to think that they were nobly “giving voice to the voiceless,” they were not. It is both dangerous and presumptive to think that people belonging to geographically or culturally distant minority groups are voiceless. They do have voices. Odds are they’re speaking. Are you listening and paying attention?
The real LGBTQ activists in the Middle East are now in danger as a result of the hoax being revealed. Several of them took risks to identify themselves in an effort to save their supposed lost compatriot. Daniel Nassar, a Syrian gay activist, says that “I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I’ve been forced back into the closet online. Amina’s arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.”
Another Syrian gay activist, Sami Hamwi, fears that this high-publicity hoax could cause Syrian authorities to crack down on gay activists. “I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out,” he said. “[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades.”
Both of the aforementioned activists use pseudonyms, but they are otherwise who they say they are. They don’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be arrested or killed. Salma, a writer for the Queer Arab magazine Bekshoos, was in touch with “Amina” prior to the hoax being revealed. She says that “I understood what anonymity meant to her and I know what it means to us. I expected a fake picture and even a fake name; I did not expect a fake personality all together.” She continues:
“Sadly Mr. MacMaster with his hoax delegitimized the voice of so many Arab, specifically Syrian, bloggers. He spoke on our behalf without having the right or legitimacy of doing so, while delegitimizing our voice in the process. So I would like to thank you for stepping on our feet, experimenting with our lives, opening the eyes of an oppressive system to our existence, and most of all thank you for lying to us and tricking us into believing you.”
Delegitimizing people who are actually on the ground is a very big problem. But there is also another reason why assumed identities are damaging. Both MacMaster and Graber said that they cared deeply about the issues they were blogging about, and wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to try to write from the inside of those issues. Functionally, they were saying that it’s not actually alright to be vocal about an issue unless it actually affects you directly as a marginalized person. That being indirectly affected by your observations of marginalization from the outside is not valid. That being an ally is unacceptable, and doesn’t count.
In other words, even though they claimed to be trying to publicize issues of lesbianism, in the US and in Syria, both through their actions indicate that no one should actually be interested in lesbians and/or Syria unless they were actually lesbian and/or Syrian. Taken to its logical conclusion, this same train of thought tells us that no one who is male should care about women or vice versa, that no one who belongs to any one racial or ethnic group should worry about what’s happening to members of another ethnic or racial group, and no one in any given country should give a damn about any other country.
That’s dangerous. That’s a problem.
Historically, gaining allies in the dominant group has been a very important step for minority groups to gain their rights. Part of the success of the women’s movement came from men telling other men, “hey, I’ve heard what the women are saying about the limited opportunities they face, and they’re right. We should try to help them.” Part of the success of the Civil Rights movement came from white people in America saying, “hey, racial discrimination is real, and it’s wrong. Let’s see what we can do to help.” Part of the success of the current gay rights movement in the US comes from straight people saying, “wow, it doesn’t make sense for gay people not to have the same rights that we do. We should try to change that.”
Allies have a role. Their role is to create more allies. Their role is to increase the number of people who care about a particular issue towards a critical mass, so that social change can actually take place. So if you care about gay rights and you’re not gay, that’s great. If you care about racial equality and you’re white, that’s awesome. If you care about any issue that directly affects someone from a different demographic, but doesn’t directly affect you, congratulations. You recognize that injustice exists, and that it affects people, and you want to change it. That’s good. But don’t try to create the change by pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Be honest about who you are, and why the issue is important for you. Talk to the people who are directly affected, and help their voices reach a wider audience. Claim your status as an ally, and recognize that it is an important one, and that it is legitimate. Because when you deny that you’re an ally and try to speak for someone else, it doesn’t just delegitimize the people you’re impersonating. It delegitimizes you.