by Latoya Peterson
When the news broke that the Gay Girl in Damascus blog was a hoax, I wanted to read a bit more about exactly what happened. The Washington Post notes:
And Sunday, the truth spilled out: The gay girl in Damascus confessed to being a 40-year-old American man from Georgia.
The persona Tom MacMaster built and cultivated for years — a lesbian who was half Syrian and half American — was a tantalizing Internet-era fiction, one that he used to bring attention to the human rights record of a country where media restrictions make traditional reporting almost impossible.
On Sunday, MacMaster apologized on the blog. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
MacMaster, a Middle East peace activist who is working on his master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote that he fictionalized the account of a gay woman in Syria to illuminate the situation for a Western audience.
Essentially, this MacMaster fellow is Peggy Seltzer for the Arab Spring. (And, insert plot twist – LezGetReal, the blog that encouraged “Amina” to tell “her” story was ALSO run by a white man claiming to be a deaf, lesbian, mother of two.)
But the why of this intrigues me. While news organizations are in a tizzy about what this means for using blogs as sources, what I want to know is how the media environment got so skewed that fictionalized accounts by white writers get more media attention than actual accounts by people of color?
Reader Kat sent through this item from KABOBfest called “The Politics Behind the Role Play”:
More than just speaking for Syrian activists, or Syrian women, or Syrian lesbians, as so many righteous liberal Westerners “interested” in the Middle East so often do, Tom MacMaster, in his own words, “created a voice,” and in doing so redefined what representation means for Arabs in western media – we call it ventriloquism. In creating the “dummy,” Anima, through the blog Gay Girl in Damascus, MacMaster became the mouthpiece for an entire class of Syrian people while denying Syrians (activists/women/lesbians/all of the above) the right to a voice in an already one-sided global media.
In this violent act of representation in which language and meaning was appropriated, MacMaster detracted from the stories of REAL Syrians who risk their lives daily in opposition to the dictatorship of the Assad regime. Not only did the attention received by MacMasters fake blog rob Syrians of their own voice, it put them in danger in a very real way.
The entire Kabobfest piece is worth a read, but this part, in particular, cuts to the heart of the issue:
One shouldn’t need the sensationalized fictional narrative of a lesbian Syrian woman to affirm the rights of Syrian demonstrators who are being brutally repressed by their governments. But if the goal is to arouse emotion and entertain, then MacMaster has succeeded in proving that the truth about Arabs comes secondary to Western perceptions and feelings towards them.
I wonder how did Gay Girl in Damascus amass such a following, while other activists and bloggers did not? Probably for the same reason Peggy Seltzer’s memoir was a literary darling until they discovered it was fictional, and why a young white able-bodied male college grad could make headlines by explaining that poverty isn’t so bad after all. Writing from a white western perspective confirms a white western perspective. Or to put it more simply, like recognizes like. Clearly, people were able to find Syrian activists, writers, and bloggers to go on the record about this in the aftermath – where were their voices before?
This whole drama hearkens back to the enduring issue of diversity in media. Most people can see, visually, the lack of racial/ethnic diversity and a failure to incorporate women into the higher echelons of news and culture institutions. But the problem runs far deeper than that. Who do we consider an expert? Frustration is the only word that came to mind when the news coverage of the MENA region started and television networks could deliver me nothing that wasn’t filtered through a white man over the age of fifty (and in some cases, someone who may have directly contributed to the cause of the unrest). How can we adequately frame issues from around the globe without featuring voices from around the globe? Traditional news has always been about selection – what a roomful of men thought the world needed to know about. When I interviewed Derrick Ashong from Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, he mentioned:
Ashong pointed out that media has traditionally been a top down kind of business, where a handful of people were expected to curate what was newsworthy for the masses.
“If I turn on CNN, I won’t hear anything about [what's] going on in Africa unless there’s a conflict to be covered or a tragedy. As a person born in Africa, that’s unacceptable to me. It isn’t that there’s no news being created, it’s just that we won’t hear about that news.”
We have come to a sad state of media affairs when fictional creations receive far more attention than those actually putting their lives on the line, and that the stories of “others” are only worth telling once they have been co-opted.
“The story of a gay girl in Damascus or, a straight guy in Edinburgh” [Daily Maverick]
Doree Shafir on White Intellectual Norms Post-Seltzer [The Doree Chronicles]
Daniel Nassar on “The real world of gay girls in Damascus” [The Guardian]
Liz Henry on Amina and Fictional Blogging [Composite]