We’ve come a long way: 40 years ago, if you lived as an out-of-the-closet lesbian, you had to be on constant guard. Social services could take away your children on a whim. Your boss would suffer no heat after firing you for the person you loved. Bigots would egg your house. And the state wasn’t above using your sexual orientation as the pretext to commit you to a mental institution.
We’re still not living in a gay-tolerance paradise, but things have improved. Thanks to the Internet, even men can live as lesbians, as the events of the past week have shown.
As you may have read, the press just outed two men attempting to pass as lesbians online. Media inquiries unmasked the allegedly kidnapped Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Arraf, author of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, as Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old married American graduate student living in Scotland. Amina’s dispatches were cross-posted at a lesbian-news blog called Lez Get Real (cached site), which claims to have helped Amina set up her blog. The sleuthing that unmasked MacMaster ultimately led to a similar bust of Ohioan Bill Graber, proprietor of Lez Get Real, who was writing under the name of Paula Brooks.
Sexual disguise is as old as humanity, and posing as a lesbian is merely a natural variant on the practice. It energizes writers as often as it does readers. William Shakespeare roused his audiences—and probably himself—by repeatedly creating female characters who masquerade as men. In Twelfth Night, a woman named Viola who disguises herself as a man becomes the love object of another woman. Meanwhile, Viola is in love with a man who is smitten by that same woman, and he uses Viola as the go-between to advance his designs on her. TheTwo Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice both stage less-complicated sexual masquerades, but in As You Like It, Rosalind poses as Ganymede posing as Rosalind. And a female character falls for him/her. At least one scholar theorizes that Shakespeare populated his plays with lesbian characters.
For extra leavening, remember that in the Bard’s time, all of his characters were played by males.
When the online world started spreading in the 1980s, it was common for users to don cross-gender disguises in chat rooms, especially with the advent of AOL. Sites like Second Life have made gender blurring only easier, or, I should say, more realistic.
But the urge to change gender and sexual orientations in virtual space is even more curious. Both MacMaster and Graber defend their impersonations on the grounds that, had they voiced the same opinions as men, readers wouldn’t have taken them seriously.
As much as I hate to agree with frauds, they’re likely right. MacMaster’s observations on Syria’s mayhem would have been ignored if readers had known he was an American guy in Scotland. And what lesbian among us would have heeded Graber’s “Gay Girl’s View on the World,” the site’s motto, if informed that the gay girl doing the viewing was a he?
If Graber was a petty thief, changing his gender and batting from the other side of the plate to advocate equality for lesbians, MacMaster was a serial forger. He devised an elaborate, exploitative disguise, depositing his Syrian-American “character” 2,500 miles from his home, into a foreign culture where she joined a bloody real-life drama.
“I set Amina up as a lesbian to improve my creative writing quality,” he tells the Washington Post. In the mea culpa on his blog, MacMaster explains that he’s always wanted to write fiction, but universal rejection led him to conduct “various exercises” on dating sites by conjuring a personality other than his own. Amina Arraf “came alive,” he writes, and sort of took over after he created her. She commented on websites, she got her own email address, she subscribed to email lists.
It’s a pretty story, but that explanation is as phony as Amina Arraf herself. We tell lies out of boredom or necessity. Additional lies conceal our initial lies, and grander lies follow to maintain our audiences, if we gather one. This is what MacMaster’s escalating deceptions were about and not the silliness of Amina coming alive. Unwilling to confess his fakery, he piled it even higher.
According to the Guardian, MacMaster exchanged 1,000 emails with a French-Canadian woman who believed she was having a romantic relationship with Amina. How deceiving this woman was supposed to advance MacMaster’s literary art, I’m not quite sure. He also stole the photograph of a London woman named Jelena Lecic, called it a shot of Amina, and put it on his Gay Girl in Damascus blog. And he sketched Amina’s first-person account of coming out: “And next thing, I know, I kiss her on the mouth, and she kisses me back and we’re kissing, kissing like we’ve both been hungering for a long time. I feel her hands on my bare back squeezing me closer to her, and then I feel her touching my breasts; my nipples tingle.”
This isn’t creative writing. This is soft porn. Or online masturbation.
By going lesbian, MacMaster and Graber capitalize twice: first on the oppressed class of women and then on the minority status of lesbians. As the more-ambitious fabulist, MacMaster expands his con to include ethnicity and faith by making Amina a half-Syrian Muslim. I’m sure that had he continued his ruse, MacMaster would have eventually put Amina in a wheelchair, sent her to a 12-step program, and hospitalized her for anorexia.
The premise of the two blogs is this: If you possess a rare political or social identity, the world will find your social-political observations keener and more worthy. The downside of the premise is that when it comes to issues that don’t buffet your identity—like war and taxes and zoning—the world doesn’t want to hear from you at all. MacMaster and Graber knew that if they commented from the ghetto they’d be credible, which should give us all pause.
That MacMaster and Graber communicated with one another, each thinking the other was a lesbian, adds the inevitable Shakespearean dimension to the story. According to the Washington Post:
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.
If only we could arrange for Viola and Rosalind to fall in love with Amina and Paula and then step out from the wings to embrace MacMaster and Graber and marry them in a final scene, this farce could be transformed into romantic comedy.
The lesson of the bogus lesbian bloggers—if there is one—is of the limitations technology puts on political and social identity. If the Web allows us to be whoever we pretend to be, if we can all be lesbians or Syrians or Muslims by pressing the right keystrokes, then identity begins to lose its uniqueness. If there’s a Turing Test for being a lesbian, the events of the last week prove that we’re all lesbians now.
Thanks to the miracle of Google Cache, you can read the preposterous apology from Lez Get Real for publishing the counterfeit works of Amina “Tom MacMaster” Arraf. Maybe somebody could stage this as a musical. Send score and book via email to email@example.com. Or give my Twitter feed a whistle. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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