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This article was published on June 13, 2011

Hoax “Gay Girl in Damascus” sparks fury in the Middle East

Hoax “Gay Girl in Damascus” sparks fury in the Middle East
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Anyone who has been following the popular uprising in Syria is probably familiar with the name Amina. If you missed the story, Amina was thought to be a Syrian gay blogger, who’s story had received significant attention, particularly after a post went up on her blog claiming she had been arrested by Syrian authorities.

I talk about Amina in the past tense, not because she died at the hands of these Syrian authorities, but because she never existed. As it turns out Amina was simply the figment of Tom MacMaster’s imagination. Who is Tom MacMaster? A married, American man studying in Scotland.

Tom revealed the truth, or at least part of it, while vacationing with his wife in Turkey, in a public apology he posted on the blog last night, stating, “I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.”

The story spread like wildfire on Twitter, under various hashtags including #GayGirlHoax along with some colourful expletives, as activists, bloggers and journalists reacted to the revelation, and they certainly weren’t thanking Tom for his attempts to “illuminate” the plight of the Middle Eastern people.

It’s hard to imagine that MacMaster would have ever revealed the truth, had it not been for the fact that there were some who questioned the story and decided to dig a little deeper. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of Electronic Intifida revealed the holes in Amina’s story, while NPR’s Andy Carvin made similar efforts.

It slowly came to light that no one had ever actually seen or spoken with Amina, corresponding with her only via email. Soon it was revealed that images supposedly of Amina, which had been plastered all over the net, were of a London-based woman named Jelena Lecic. MacMaster’s blog post finally put an end to the mystery.

Now that it has been revealed that Amina never existed, the fallout from his unbelievably misguided attempt to bring attention to gay rights in the Middle East is huge.

For days, a significant amount of attention was taken away from the crackdown on protests in Syria, to campaign for the release of a fictitious woman, a campaign that drew almost 15,000 people on Facebook. Sure it only takes a click of a button to show your support on Facebook, but public pressure has been known to ensure the safety of detained activists in the region in the past.

And what of the boy who cried wolf? When a blogger is detained by authorities, are we now facing the risk that people might stop and question that person’s existence?

To be fair, MacMaster isn’t the only one to be blamed in this debacle. Mainstream media plays a significant role in which stories make the headlines, and stay there. So when there are hundreds upon hundreds of Syrians being detained and killed, the harsh truth of the matter is that they knew that Amina’s story made for a much better soundbite.

A gay Syrian activist, one that really does exist, summed up on Twitter the true effect that MacMaster’s hoax has had on life in Syria, “Actual LGBT activists had to go even deeper in hiding because of #GayGirlHoax just because one individual wanted his 15 minutes of fame.”

While, from thousands of miles away, MacMaster can claim to have single-handedly revealed how his experience has confirmed “the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism,” and pat himself on the back for putting the spotlight on this issue, those affected by his actions are shying away back into the shadows. On Gay Middle East, Syrian LGBT activist, Sami Hamwi, reacts to MacMaster’s post, “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure.”

This is certainly not the first time, nor will it be the last, that some one, somewhere, will create an imaginary persona, bringing it to life with a fake blog. If no other good will come of this, maybe the image of Tom MacMaster plastered all over the Internet in a Che Guevera t-shirt will make the next Amina stop and think before publishing that first ill-thought blog post.