“Amina” Acid and the Ballad of Bill of Tom: deception in the pursuit of activism

What to make of the sudden revelation that two prominent lesbian bloggers, both activists, were really men?

Tom MacMaster, an American student studying in Scotland, his subject Middle Eastern Studies, created the blog “Gay Girl in Damascus” as a way to give himself a voice in the debates about what was going on in Syria, a voice others would believe.  Well, he got more than he bargained for.  The new found fame–when other people started reading the blog—went to his head, he admits, and he took the opportunity to start pushing his opinions, through Amina Arraf, on all sorts of things related to Syria.  He wanted to make a difference and claimed that no one would listen to him as a white American male.  His blog seemed to be recording life during the “Arab Spring”–a time that’s exciting everyone all over the world.  Oddly, instead of a male protagonist, in Syria, he made his “character” a lesbian:

“It was part of the challenge of being someone who wasn’t me. It was a way of also drawing attention to things, I do think there is a certain orientalism, where we in the West tend to pay more attention to people that are like us, people we can relate to, someone marginalized is more interesting.

I also think I wanted to show that in Syria, too, there are people who are all different, gay, straight, people of every possible permutation.” (from the Washington Post)

When, in a dramatic turn of events in “Amina’s” life, MacMaster writes that she’s kidnapped, he suddenly got the world’s attention.  People were noticeably upset about what was happening to this lesbian blogger in Syria.  They wanted to help. The Post says that this is the moment when a blog that might have remained believable took a misstep.  It was that Amina had so many supporters, so many people “she” had talked to, that they wanted to help her.

And the evidence piled up against Amina being a real person….  which caused him to come clean.  I don’t think he would have come clean without the sudden dose of skepticism.

MacMaster’s apology on his website seems, at best, naive.

“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.” (via Washington Post)

Days later, another prominent lesbian blogger, Paula Brooks, and editor of a communal blogsite for lesbian and gay issues, LezGetReal, is exposed as a white, American, straight man. Bill Graber, 58, began the blog in 2008.

Graber said he started the site to write about gay issues after seeing the mistreatment of close friends who were a lesbian couple. He said the site was “done with the best of intentions.” As a former Air Force pilot, he also said he used the site to argue in favor of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal.

“I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man,” he said.

(Washington Post)

Ironically, he and MacMaster had some chat together, even flirtations.

In the guise of Paula Brooks, Graber corresponded online with Tom MacMaster, thinking he was writing to Amina Arraf. Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian.(WP)

Both men apologized for years of pretending to be someone they weren’t.  They were both trying to help out a cause they felt they didn’t have a voice in, and they both deeply hope that their fabrications haven’t hurt the causes they cared about.

Is this simply a case of gender-play?  Were these men trying to make a difference?  Did they succeed in the changes they wanted to make?  Is it okay to impersonate someone and portray a fictional account of life as truth–for a higher purpose?

Here are my opinions:

“A Million Little Pieces” and autobiographies by J.T. Leroy, Nasdijj, Misha Defonseca, and others which are considered “fake memoirs” or literary forgeries, have been around for a long time.  There is, however, been a plethora of them published in the last decade–including the remarkably explosive Three Cups of Tea.

One can only wonder why this happens–is it the quick pace of publishing when marketability trumps truth, or is it that facts slip by unnoticed and unchecked because publishers are human and they trust their writers?  Probably a bit of both.

But these publications have taught us several things:

One, the greater the public reception of a writing that touches the heart, the greater the wrath of the public when that writing is exposed as fraud.  There is no wrath like an Oprah scorned–and Oprah has millions of friends. People don’t want to be fooled and when their hearts are fooled, they get angry.

Two, that after awhile these stories that turn out to be frauds harden the hearts and sharpen the cynicism of readers of memoirs.  They become more skeptical, and less inclined to believe real stories, knowing that there must be fake parts.

Three, the public loves a true story and will buy one over a novel.  Publishers know this.  Writers know this.  We live in “truthy” times.  “Based on a true story” has prefaced many a book to its favor.  The earliest novels, works of fiction, trumpeted their “real story” pedigrees, even if they were false, by claiming that they were actual historical accounts.  It was the only way for authors to play with realism.  Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein are what I think of first…but I’m sure there are even better examples.  “True accounts” by narrators whom we know to be creations who are trying to tell us the “truth” and who boldly claim this in the title, or on the first page, or the first paragraph.  To lend it authenticity of voice.  Who wants to shout out they’re lying?  Sales of nonfiction, though, often outstrip fiction.  We are in a nonfiction heydey.

Four, we love the tragic story.  Many of these faked memoirs are from authors who purport to represent marginalized peoples who struggle in society: Native Americans, the homeless, gays, women in Syria, drug addicts, etc.  Beggars have known for millenia that folks will fork over cash for a good sad story.  The bigger the story, the more the sympathy, the more the cash.  Some of those fake memoirs recently have been about Holocaust survivors, and at least one by a Holocaust survivor.

Five, and I think this is important, NO ONE IS HELPED by a fake memoir.  The author of Three Cups of Tea has certainly found a lot of tempest in that tea.  Though his organization has helped SOME schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, other schools seem never to have begun, or have been created for the purposes of more money.  The fabrications in Three Cups of Tea threaten the good that Mortenson has done.

So we come to two blogs by two men who played two lesbians.  One wanted the exoticism, and the Western sensibility, and both wanted authenticity in talking about their isssues.  Clearly, they are both purporting more than fake memoirs.  They are personas that interact with other people, influencing them–I’m not just talking about news media, but other people.  I wonder how many other women were affected by these men.  How much advice they gave, how much trust they engendered.  Trust that’s now been broken.

While two men decided to help out, they may have actually done more serious damage.  Syria is a dangerous situation for journalists, women, and LGBT people.  Certainly, and I heard this on CBC today, MacMaster has cried wolf in Syria and the next real blogger may not be believed.  The Post’s article says that other Syrian bloggers have come forward to say that they feel they might be “delegitimized” by MacMaster’s hoax.  Who’s gonna believe their accounts?  MacMaster fears that Syria will believe that this just proves Western Media is all false.  And I don’t think anything was done in favor of gay rights by having liars push important issues.  Gays are very vulnerable in Middle Eastern cultures.  I think they are more vulnerable now.

I wonder about the argument that other voices were not heard because audiences were distracted by these two frauds.  Cream rises to the top–but of course, a little sensationalism sweetens it too.  Did they drown out other voices?  The voices they thought weren’t being heard?

I think the impulse to help is good, but the impulse to “become the voice” because you sense a voicelessness in the group that you’re trying to help is just your own ego playing “savior”.  These two men stepped up and did what they felt others should be doing, what others could be doing, and in doing so, and being exposed, hurt a lot of people.  They undermined all their good.  Like money-laundering for charities.  Yes, the charities are a good cause, but the money-laundering dirties the good.  Let others who can play the hero, do it.  Or learn to promote LGBT issues and women’s issues as yourself.

But haven’t we seen authors switch genders for other reasons:

I think it says something about the lack of credence these two white men felt in expressing views about GLBT issues and about Syrian policy.  Why did they feel like they needed the personas in the first place?  They both admitted that they thought no one would listen to them.  It sounds like the Remington Steele of blogging:

“Try this for a deep, dark secret. The great detective Remington Steele, he doesn’t exist…I invented him. Follow: I always loved excitement so I studied and apprenticed and put my name on an office but absolutely nobody knocked down my door. A female private investigator seemed so feminine, so I invented a superior, a decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm until the day he walked in with his blue eyes and mysterious past and before I knew it he assumed Remington Steele’s identity. Now I do the work and he takes the bows. It’s a dangerous way to live but as long as people buy it I can get the job done. We never mix business with pleasure, well, almost never. I don’t even know his real name.” (Stephanie Zimbalist’s opening monologue played over music for the start of every Remington Steele episode)

Women inventing male personas to challenge gender inequities in their careers was seen positively.  Female authors assumed male identities to get published, to gain readership, and sometimes, just to be able to have a voice at all in a decidedly patriarchal society. Laura Holt, the fictional detective, created a male persona to help out her business–to challenge stereotypes of women in formerly male-only careers.  Not so sure that Bill and Tom are singing that same ballad, but the notes sound similar.

They felt they had ideas to express and that no one accepted them as the vessels for those ideas, so they created women, strong women, to express those ideas, knowing that their audiences would accept two women over two men.  I think that’s interesting.  I don’t want to give it more credibility than it’s worth–but it is interesting.  It doesn’t excuse, but it provides an interesting framework.  What can two lesbians say that two white American straight men can’t?

Well, for one, they can promote gay issues without being seen as questioning their identity.  Most of the straight men that I knew in my conservative circles believed that if you spoke about LGBT issues, you were automatically suspect.  “Why would a privileged straight man need to talk about LGBT issues?” they wondered.  Are these women seen as strong or as vulnerable in their situations?  And is this a component for readership–vulnerability, courage in difficult circumstances, dangerous times?  Was it their strength they were hoping to channel, their “exoticism” (as MacMaster alludes to) or their vulnerability?

I also wonder about the two men who believed they were flirting with lesbians (each other).  My first thought is that they got a little spark of power and ego stroke from flirting with a woman who normally won’t flirt with men.  My second thought is that they might have enjoyed “being” the other.  We won’t know.  But it is interesting.

You know, TRY FICTION.

You can choose the voice you want, be anyone you want to be, all within the safe confines of suspended belief.  You can play with any element of the story–craft a realistic tale, build a realistic character–all without hurting actual readers. 

MacMaster admits he was a “failed fantasy writer”.  People who write fake memoirs can write some fantasy, okay?  And novels are just as powerful as “true” stories.  And I don’t buy the argument that these two white straight males are too privileged to be heard through fiction.  Tom could have written “Gay Girl in Damascus” and collaborated with his wife, lesbians and Syrians to give that novel a great larger truth–even through fiction–without having to “FOOL” or “punk” the rest of the world.  Fiction is a legitimate medium.  Look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a white, fairly privileged woman in the North about the black experience in the South.  Don’t tell me a work of fiction by someone more privileged in society can’t do good for those underprivileged.  Fiction is where it’s at, guys.  If you’re going to lie anyway…you can get the same thought-provoking narrative, same topical advantage, same detail, and actually, a bigger chance at hitting a deeper chord, through fiction.  Fiction reaches into your mythos.  It resonates.  And it can be just as “true”.

As for memoir…

I don’t think anything positive for activism is accomplished through deceit.  When that deceit is exposed, the good that you do is destroyed. Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, politicians who cheat, pastors who play around–they trip everything up.  They make us all look bad.  They convince everyone not to believe those memoirists who are trying to speak the truth.  I am convinced people write these for the power of “fooling” other people, the power of lying.  It gives you a rush not to give away your secret, to string along a heart or two million.

However, when we find out the person we love is actually married, or cheating on us, we feel betrayed.  It doesn’t matter all the good they’ve done, all the lovely advice, good times–we know they lied.  And for bloggers, and for memoirists, integrity and honesty is all we got.

If our lives aren’t good enough AS IS to sell the story, then maybe the story can’t be sold to millions.  The temptation to embellish is strong, but resist it.  If it didn’t happen, don’t say it did.  One lie can unravel a beautiful set of truths.  People need something true to believe in.  Not just something, but something true.  That truth could be found most perfectly in fiction.  But it can’t be found in your fiction if you try to sell it to us as truth.

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