when the internet stops being a playground

Last week, a post appeared on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog reporting that the blog’s author, Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by security forces. People responded. They tweeted, they wrote to Syrian embassies, the news got picked up by LGBT and mainstream news.

However, there were doubts about whether this person existed. Liz Henry observed “I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support”. What if this person did exist and was in danger? Amina may not exist – but what if she did, what if she had been kidnapped and was being forcibly deported, beaten or abused? The stakes seemed too high to just dismiss it.

Liz Henry had her doubts, based on experience with other hoaxes, and wrote about them in two posts: Painful doubts about Amina and Chasing Amina. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty carefully examined what evidence they had to work out Amina’s identity.

The Amina blogger turned out to be Tom McMaster – a 40 year old male Masters student studying in Edinburgh. He apologised, claiming that he did “not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. LGBT bloggers in Syria were understandably furious. Contrary to McMaster’s claim that he did not harm anyone, they describe tangible ways he has made their lives and online activities less safe – drawing authorities’ attention to their activism, forcing them back into the closet, caused people to doubt their existence or the authenticity of their reports. As Brian Whitaker says, “[l]iving a fantasy life on your own blog is one thing, but giving an interview to CNN while posing as a representative of the region’s gay people appears arrogant and offensive, and surely a prime example of the “liberal Orientalism” that MacMaster claims to decry”.

In a weird twist, the editor of “Lez Get Real”, Paula Brooks, has also turned out to be a straight man. He said that he “didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man”. I have to admit, with some annoyance, that I have not noticed straight, cisgendered, white men as having a particular problem with “not being taken seriously” – this is privilege 101 stuff.

What this seems to be is a clash of internet cultures. On one hand, the internet is perceived as a playground for identities. As Liz Henry notes, people may have good reason “to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright”.

However, on the other, citizen journalism and minority blogging relies on authenticity; of you experiencing something that mainstream media doesn’t cover. It relies on telling your truth, shining light into areas where top-down media does not, or cannot, reach. It can be incredibly powerful – Baghdad Burning was just one example. There’s a tension between the internet as a consequence-free playground for identity, and the fact that sometimes these identities have very real consequences.

I also note that it’s straight white men doing this, and I’m finding it difficult to interpret this in isolation of that. @paleblurrr observed, in a series of tweets, “straight and/or white men not getting automatic respect/authority afforded to them in mainstream society in queer and/or poc communities, instead of respectful engagement from a place of privilege, fake identities to infiltrate and feel “powerful”. that’s all about power & control, ensuring they dominate conversations & are centre of our attention at whatever cost to others. can’t ever not be about them. Ever.”

I think what bothers me is the deliberate lying, manipulation and deception. Not stating your identity and allowing people to make their assumptions is one thing. Experimenting with different voices and persona in a setting where that’s acceptable and acknowledged is another. But creating a persona that is a member of a minority group and using that to speak on behalf of people when you do not share their lives, experiences or oppressions, and putting real people in danger when they cared about your created persona? That seems different, and makes it a much more complicated, uncomfortable and deeply problematic situation.

Edited to add: A few links which I thought were interesting – Said says Amina Hoax MacMaster-mind is Orientalist, Identity drag: Amina, appropriation and accountability and Men masquerading as lesbians online: allies or cowards?.

A footnote

LGBT History Month starts tomorrow, and perhaps fittingly I read this footnote a few days ago.

Rosen 1974, footnote on page 209 regarding Christabel Pankhurst’s sexual and emotional relationships:

Christabel may well have been a Lesbian, but the evidence is circumstantial rather than explicit: she never married, and the copious documents relating to her life and career do not allude to any heterosexual involvements. All the available evidence indicates she had stronger emotional attachments to women than to men, and the markedly dominant/submissive character of her relationships with Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney certainly seems to resemble the psychology of many Lesbian relationships. There is, however, no reason to believe that Christabel’s affection for Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney ever involved conscious sensuality, and as far as the history of the WSPU is concerned the exact nature of Christabel’s sex-life is less significant than the fact that by 1913 she had grown into a state of mind in which she was completely adverse to any form of co-operation with men.

I find it an interesting footnote for several reasons: the first and perhaps most immediately obvious reason is the speculation as to the dynamics of lesbian relationships. Without further information it’s difficult to say whether this observation has anything to do with the perceived dynamics of butch/femme relationships, but I do find it interesting that lesbian relationships are markedly dominant/submissive, and heterosexual ones are not marked in the same way.

Secondly, it was published in 1974; academic research also has a historical context. 1967 marked the passing of the Sexual Offences Act and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and this book was published seven years after that. I don’t want to read too much into a single initial capitalisation, but Lesbian suggests something about how that identity was conceptualised – as something static, as something still close to criminalisation and pathology.

Thirdly, as my last post discusses, there’s a transience in how sexual identities are understood. Our understanding of lesbian identities have already changed between Rosen’s 1974 comment and as I write this in 2011 – I think there’s a belief now that same-sex relationships are more equal than heterosexual ones. There’s more understanding of asexual identities and what these can encompass – grey-A, demisexual, homoromantic. But the context, as well as making it difficult for us to understand an individual’s sexuality in our terms, also affects how an individual would have expressed their sexuality. While sex between women was not a criminal offence, it’s not hard to imagine that the early 20th century was not the most lesbian-friendly of times.

Fourthly, I like how it delivers what Dr Lesley Hall describes as a “codslap”. This footnote reads like a response to others’ speculation as to Christabel’s sexuality, and ultimately concludes that whatever her sexuality, it’s less important than how she felt about men being involved with the WSPU campaign.

For me there’s a tension between the importance of acknowledging historical figures’ non-heterosexual identities when we have evidence for them – people like Alan Turing and Edward Carpenter – and not trying to ascribe sexual identities where there isn’t (enough of) that evidence. Short of necromancy or the loan of a TARDIS, we can’t actually know, and besides, sexuality is just one facet of a person’s identity. Other facets exist and may be more important to that person, and perhaps it’s an issue of finding a balance between sexuality being invisiblised and sexuality overshadowing other important parts of an individual’s identity. It’s something I’m still mulling over though, and I definitely don’t have anything conclusive to say.

If you’re a University of Nottingham person, we’ll have a history display in the Portland Atrium tomorrow between 10 and 4 so come along if you want to learn something about LGBT history.

PS if you do have a TARDIS, I have an interesting research proposal for you…