In the media business, we frequently use the maxim "three makes a trend." So far I haven’t heard about another white heterosexual man passing as, say, a Syrian lesbian or deaf lesbian mother of two, but I’m sure one will emerge in the next 10 minutes. In the meantime–for you folks who have been too busy being a member of a systematically oppressed group–allow me to recap.
On February 19th, shortly before Syria’s Arab Spring uprisings began, an American-born Syrian lesbian named Amina Abdullah Araf launched "A Gay Girl in Damascus." Araf had been posting comments and debating Middle Eastern politics online for years, but created her own space at the urging of Paula Brooks, co-founder of the news site "Lez Get Real."
Araf’s blog featured her erotic poetry and her coming-out story–risky material since homosexuality is illegal in Syria. She also spread news of the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors, prompting Time.com to call her "an honest and reflective voice of the revolution." In late April, Araf claimed that Syrian security forces visited her father’s home and accused her of "conspiring against the state," "urging armed uprising," and "working with foreign elements." Subsequent posts found Araf "going underground," although she was still able to "encourage other women in Syria to be more upfront" via an email interview with cbsnews.com. Last week, a cousin posted a dramatic account of Araf’s abduction by three armed men. Like the rest of "Gay Girl in Damascus," that entry is now unavailable to the public.
Because they’re human beings, members of the LBGT and progressive blogesphere took to Twitter, Facebook and petition sites demanding information and protection for Araf. Days later, the blogger’s "Catfish"-style caper unraveled due to skeptical tweets from an NPR reporter; news of fake photos on Araf’s Facebook page; and an unnerving interview with a Montreal woman "Araf" had seduced via Facebook. On Sunday, The Washington Post revealed "Araf" to be Tom MacMaster, a white 40-year-old from Virginia who was raised a Mennonite and attends a graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.
At this point, MacMaster should have just said, "I’ve come down with a terrible case of white, male privilege. Please medicate me."
Instead, in the first of several pseudo-apologies, he revealed his dreams of a fiction career:
"Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to write fiction but, when my first attempts met with universal rejection, I took a more serious look at my own work and I realized that I could not write conversation in a natural way nor could I convincingly write characters who weren’t me. I tried to get better and did various exercises (such as simply copying overheard conversations). Eventually, I would set up a number of profiles on dating sites with identities that were not my own as ways of interacting with real people in conversation but with a different personality than my own.
Some Middle East romanticizing:
Ever since my childhood I had felt very connected to the cultures and peoples of the Middle East. … My mother had taught English in Turkey before I was born and my father had been involved with Middle East refugee issues when they met.
The "Hey, I’m a nerd" meme:
I’m also an argumentative sort and a bit of a nerd. I was involved with numerous online science-fiction/alternate-history discussion lists and, as a part of that process, I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East. I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction."
And, "Sorry. It got fun.":
"I should have left the original ‘brief experiment in nerd psychology’ go…I didn’t. Instead, I enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was. … It was a terrible time suck but it was fun."
MacMaster also apologized to a few individuals, including his Blog Yoda, Paula Brooks. I would say Brooks deserved this personal acknowledgement–except on Tuesday we found out that Paula is a straight, white, married American man named Bill Graber.
Per the Washington Post, the 58-year-old is a 20-year military veteran who has been using his wife’s identity online since 2008. To avoid talking to his site’s contributors on the phone, he claimed deafness.Graber doesn’t seem to have fiction-writing aspirations. Instead, the Ohio resident is going with, "some of my best friends are lesbians."
"The purpose of the Web site is to try to be a champion to do something good. I have a lot of gay friends. There is a lesbian couple that are my very dear friends and a lot of what you heard on Lez Get Real is their story," he told the Post. "…This couple is the perfect, cute, gay couple."
And a victory dance for the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal:
"I think my web site had a lot to do with getting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. I spent my life in the military, so I told [my writers] where to go. I thought Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was about the stupidest story I ever saw. My opinion is it doesn’t really matter who [gay people] sleep with. Gays are not demonic monsters like the bishop tells you they are. As soon as people serve as gays and come back out in society, attitudes will be changed."
Yesterday Salamishah Tillet, the anti-rape activist, Africana Studies professor and a friend whom I can say I’ve seen in person, texted me about how the MacMaster and Graber hoaxes remind her of the 1838 James Williams Slave Narrative most likely penned by a white abolitionist.
"Like in the controversial and fake 1838 ‘Narrative of James Williams,’ these [modern] white men posing as oppressed people makes it even harder for people to take ‘real’ concerns, demands and freedom writing seriously," she wrote. (Seriously, she texts this way!) "Now, actual Arab lesbian bloggers will have to go to greater lengths to prove that they are in fact Arab and lesbian, and they’ll have to prove why their radical to liberal politics should be taken seriously. Aaargh."
I texted her back about "Margaret B. Jones," the half-white, half-Native American "anti-gang activist" who in 2008 published a memoir about the South Central, Los Angeles, foster home where she, along with her "brothers" Terrell and Taye, ran drugs for the Bloods. Jones’s real-life sister exposed her. Last I’ve heard, she was Margaret Seltzer, a straight-up white woman from tony Sherman Oaks who is as Blood-affiliated as the Red Cross. Her explanation:
"For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to," she told The New York Times. "I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it."
I and a trillion other writers of color have a simple, elegant solution for privileged white people who want to amplify the voices of folks who don’t get airplay because of their sexual orientation, race, class, immigration status, physical disability, religion, etc. To be sure everyone hears it, I’ll quote Brian Spears, who kindly wrote "A Note to My Fellow White Males":
"…I understand how tough it is to get oneself noticed above the din of all the other while male voices out there. We’re so numerous and seemingly unrestrained in our desire to talk about the world at large that sometimes it’s disheartening. We want adulation, and if not that, then at least light applause or one of those bro-nods (more a half-nod really) that communicates a job well done, a point aptly made.
And I can understand that you, white male, might find yourself in a place where you feel like what you’re writing about/reporting on/experiencing is really effing important, and the world needs to catapult the propaganda or whatever and you’re afraid that your white-maleness might disqualify you somehow from having a very important viewpoint on the subject at hand (though in my experience, white males are always considered the ultimate expert on any subject you can care to name) and so you’re tempted to take some liberties.
Don’t. Don’t do it."
Extra: Click here for a crap manuscript MacMasters submitted to Indian writer Minal Hajratwla. And for an extensive breakdown of the fallout so far, click here.