Last week, a Syrian lesbian blogger who posted under the name “Gay Girl in Damascus” was reportedly kidnapped. But slowly, doubts about whether Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari – supposedly a 35-year-old lesbian and feminist – actually existed began to emerge. And finally, a heterosexual man named Tom MacMaster, a PhD student living in Scotland, admitted to being the “sole author” of all of the posts on the blog.
The hoax, understandably, was greeted with a substantial amount of outrage. MacMaster apologized, but the criticism kept rolling forward. But now, while reporting on the MacMaster story, the Washington Post revealed that a second “lesbian” blogger was actually a white, straight man – this time, “Paula Brooks,” the editor of the lesbian news site Lez Get Real, came forward and admitted that he was actually Bill Graber, a 58-year-old retiree.
The fact that these two online identities existed (and that, ironically, Graber and MacMaster actually corresponded with each other under their online personas) shows just how dangerous the internet can be. The Washington Post explained how they discovered Graber’s identity:
“Brooks had told reporters at The Washington Post that she could only speak on the phone through her father because she was deaf. She provided a photograph of her license as proof of her identity, which showed a woman named Paula Brooks. On Monday, we continued to question her identity. We spoke to the man who identified himself as her father, who finally admitted after numerous telephone conversations: ‘I am Paula Brooks.’ That man turned out to be Bill Graber.”
Like MacMaster, Graber said that he masqueraded as a lesbian woman in an attempt to speak out on behalf of oppressed people – in Graber’s case, his lesbian friends. “I didn’t start this with my name because…I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man,” Graber explained.
As noble as this may seem, the two men don’t quite get why what they did was horribly wrong. As Brian Spears wrote in a wonderful essay which I encourage all of you to read, it may seem tough for white men to get noticed (I’m tempted to add a sarcastic boo-hoo to this, but Spears does it better – i.e. more subtly).
Spears also points out, in no uncertain terms, that white men need to be told: “Don’t co-opt the voice of a minority in hopes that people will take your writing more seriously, especially when you belong to the most privileged demographic group on the planet.”
Graber and MacMaster may have thought they were doing the world a service, and that their voices were just that important that it was acceptable for them to bypass journalistic ethics and speak as a minority about whose experiences they knew very little. But this, as Spears notes, just shows how much privilege they have. They can apologize all they want, but I hope this sends a message to anyone who wants to impersonate another identity group online – just don’t do it. You may mean well, but in the case of Graber and MacMaster, your dishonesty will do far more harm than good.
Photo from Screaming Monkey's Flickr photostream.