By now word of the great Gay Girl in Damascus hoax has spread throughout the western world and the blogosphere, becoming a much ballyhooed object of derision, snickering, finger wagging, tut tutting and all the rest. For those of you not in the know, here’s Color Lines’ Akiba Solomon’s deft summary of recent events— it precedes an analysis I highly recommend:
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.”
Let me explain this very plainly: As a trans, queer woman of colour who writes authoritatively about her experiences I am very directly affected by the aspersions cast by this hoax. My words have power only if you believe them.
Now, this is hardly to claim that this little plague of white cis het guys in women costumes are the sole cause of all doubt and derision cast on those of us women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, PWD who speak out and speak loudly as we testify to our truths. That is certainly not the case. But they play so very deftly into the hands of that rash of men who say that there are no women on the Internet and that everyone claiming to be is really some creepy neckbearded guy in his mum’s basement. It gives a very powerful excuse to people who want to ignore us, erase us, marginalise us further, and another reason for them to simply shut down their minds whenever they read words of power from those the mainstream media almost never listens to.
In impersonating women of colour and queer women, the two fools behind Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real have done immeasurable damage with their high profile ‘outings.’ When so many of us out there are not listened to, are not given interviews with Time Magazine and CBS News to tell our stories in our own voices, what these two men have done is given every reason to news corporations to be even more gunshy about taking sources seriously if they do not come through the “proper channels.” It was likely as not a battle for some reporters to get their bosses to seriously accept ‘Amina’ as a credible interview subject, for instance. Now it will be an impossible battle when a real woman of colour has something to say to the mainstream press.
This obviously affects me very personally—the informal testimony offered on blogs in the trans-sphere have been lifelines to many people in need and tell stories, give analysis, and produce knowledge that the cis majority would do well to take seriously. These hoaxes, yet one more grievous harm perpetrated on us by white cis men, make that needful aim that much harder to achieve. In a recent paper I penned for my Transgender Studies seminar, which a leader in the political science field has recommended for publication, I made a very powerful argument for the inclusion of trans people’s blogs as credible sources of empirical data about transgender experience, reality, and engagement with widespread academic and political falsehoods:
“These words matter, they are more than anecdotes (a term often used to dismiss and devalue the empirical text of peoples’ spoken experiences), more than ‘merely subjective.’ They testify to a truth only trans people can know and that is eminently open to sociological Verstehen: how trans people interpreted and understood their own lives. If these words rattle one’s marrow, stir their passions, excite anger, sadness, disbelief, then that must simply be accepted. Sociologists do not study dead matter, they do not study celestial spheres orbiting millions of miles distant, they do not study inert rock, they study living, breathing, joyous, wounded, screaming human beings with all the riotous subjectivity that this implies. If we do not embrace this, we have no discipline.”
‘These words’ refer to something I quoted from the blog of the peerless little light. I know her personally, but she keeps her identity under wraps for the same reason any outspoken trans woman of colour might in a patriarchal society like ours. Because of that necessary self protection, I will more than likely have to contend with an editor or some frightfully clever white male academic asking me “but how do you know she’s not a another Gay Girl in Damascus?”
A Reuters blog on the matter says the following of MacMaster in trying to distinguish him from professional journalists who’ve perpetrated hoaxes or plagiarised:
MacMaster has much more in common with the misguided activists who have fooled the public with tales of victimization in order to advance an agenda.
There you have it: the perspective of privileged people in journalism writ large. In that sentence is contained every single suspicion of white men, whether they are producers at Reuters or just an ordinary guy tooling around the Internet and stumbling onto some uncomfortable stories told by the oppressed. People with an “agenda” and “tales of victimisation” who are “misguided.” That the author of that sentence, who ends her article with the unbelievably condescending sentence “Let’s hope this is a lesson for the next person who thinks faking a story is a valid way to advance an agenda,” is herself a woman makes this all the sadder. But I’m quite sure it’s what her bosses want to hear.
She hangs the blame at the door of raceless, genderless “activists” with “agendas.” For the sake of balance she includes a conservative and Asian-American activist who perpetrated hoaxes in the mix. The clucking of her teeth is meant to chasten all of us, yet it is the white men (and one white woman in an earlier scandal) who have been faking on such a grand scale as MacMaster, who thought this was in any way a good idea. Those who are truly oppressed? We don’t need to make things up to get our points across. It is precisely because the privileged are not oppressed that these tourist fantasies even occur to them.
I do my best, even in my polemic writing, to avoid swearing and other especially vulgar expressions. Nevertheless this very, very particular kind of harm necessarily elicits a response from me that I feel, for the sake of honesty and fairness, must be committed to publication: Fuck you, Tom MacMaster.
A Psychology of Privilege: Externalising Guilt and Fantasy
But there is still more that is disturbing about all of this and it is the picture of the dark psychology of privilege that permeates too many young white men in this day and age. See this quote from MacMaster’s “apology”:
“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.”
This is utterly breathtaking in its utter failure to understand what was really going on there. At my school there is a very active network of organisations that support Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli atrocities mostly made up of people of colour, mostly Arab and Muslim. They are, as they will tell you quite balefully, routinely accused of hating America, hating Jews, and quite a few ‘etc.s’ besides as well. The women who speak out, a few of whom I am proud to know and call my friends, often find misogyny layered on top of the political ad hominem.
That being a person of colour and/or a woman produces some imperviously privileged standpoint from which to speak is a quintessentially white male fantasy. It’s something I see expressed again and again from men who think that “political correctness” or some other bogeyman-like spectre prevents “minorities” from being held to any kind of strenuous account, and that our skin colour, gender, sexuality, national origin or what have you makes us automatic authorities in the eyes of everyone who shan’t be questioned.
Only a white person and/or a cis het man could believe this in part or in whole because it comes precisely from an over-externalisation of their perspective rather than actually living as a woman, a person of colour, a Muslim person, a person with disabilities, and so on. They have never had to hear that they were “biased” because of their gender from people with power, as I have. I’ve been told by white cis men that by being trans, or being a woman, or being Latina, that I’m incapable of the objectivity they display when talking about all matters concerning race and gender. I’ve been told that I’m “angry” and “hysterical” because I’m a woman arguing for feminism and that I must necessarily hate men; I’ve had a few lads tell me that I’m “insane”—either because I’m trans or because I’m a radical feminist or both.
The idea that being anything other than a white cis het man gives you untold authority and power is a fantasy, a fiction developed through a very perverse kind of jealousy which arises only from utterly failing to truly listen when the oppressed speak. It is a fantasy that arises from a caricature that white men use to self-victimise, and it arises from the same place that the mythology of “political correctness” and “PC police” is spawned. The idea that the marginalised actually have incredible power that is often used to bludgeon white cis het guys for the slightest of infractions.
The idea that we are automatically taken seriously is absurd. The reality is that white men speaking for the oppressed actually have more credibility in the rarefied halls of power of our world precisely because that notion of their ‘neutrality’ is so treasured and readily accepted. Men can be unbiased when talking about gender, whites can be unbiased when talking about race, het cis people can be unbiased when talking about queer and trans people, and so on. There is no truth to this, only structural prejudice that allows people to think this tacitly. Down the years there have been many court cases where women (both white and of colour) who were judges on discrimination cases; the white male lawyers tried to get them to recuse themselves due to their intrinsic “bias.” Only a white man could fairly judge whether another white man has discriminated against someone, after all.
I will not belabour these issues further. It is enough to say that this is the merest glimpse of the truth that we see with our own eyes and live with our own lives.
MacMaster’s dangerous fantasy is one that I see time and again from white cis het guys who want their truths validated. Every time you hear some smart-aleck premise his forthcoming stupidity with “well, I may be a mere male but…” you’re listening to this particularly pernicious psychology in action. It’s self-deprecating nonsense premised on the idea that the marginalised are saying we are better or otherwise superior. White men project their own deeply engrained zero-sum, hierarchical thinking onto us and assume we must be using exactly the same framework.
Akiba Solomon’s article linked to an intriguing reprimand from Brian Spears, a white man, who tongue lashed MacMaster’s and any potential imitators quite ably. It’s worth reading in full but the gist of it is, as he put it:
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.
The truth is that the writing of white men is already taken very seriously because they are seen as human and not as white men by anyone except people well educated in the social and psychological forces behind that.
My Back Pages
My bookshelves tell a story. The oldest books I own, from back in my middle school and high school days, when transition was not even something I realised was possible, are something I look at from time to time with a sense of amazement. From fiction to non-fiction nearly all of them were written by white men. The sole nonfiction example was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Nearly everything else, regardless of subject, was written by a white man. Of my vast collection of Star Wars novels only a small percentage were written by writers like Kathy Tyers or Kristene Kathryn Rusch. I never noticed this until I was in my early 20s and my feminist awareness began to blossom more fully than it had hitherto.
I bring up this anecdote to suggest that fundamental truth: white men are in no way silenced from speaking about whatever on Earth they want to. Whether it’s the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, the Japanese media, the historical accuracy of high school text books, the emergence of globalisation, or political atheism (all randomly selected topics from my oldest books) they’re very much accounted for on these subjects.
All Tom MacMaster and Bill Graber have done is make it even harder for me or anyone else from my milieu to compete with them, to say nothing of the material harm that MacMaster has caused to real Syrian LGBTQ people. One of the many things they and would-be imitators must come to understand is that no revolution worth having was ever initiated through the privileged making marionettes of the oppressed; that is merely what perpetuates oppression. The revolution will not be puppetmastered.
What gives me hope, however, is that neither I nor any of the rest of us who do speak out and know the real meaning of speaking truth to power, are going to shut up as a result of this. We will win through, I feel. It’s hardly the first time white guys have tossed flaming wreckage in our way, and it won’t be the last. But they won’t stop us.