The story of the Syrian lesbian blogger who turned out to be Tom MacMaster, a straight American man living in Scotland — and this morning’s sub-story, that the blogger who “outed” him is a straight man in Ohio pretending to be a lesbian — represents a watershed of sorts: Instead of gay people masquerading as straight to be taken seriously, it’s the reverse.
Of course, it’s problematic on all kinds of levels to adopt someone else’s identity politics, even for a good cause — the Ohio man, Bill Graber, took up pseudonymous blogging to advocate against don’t ask, don’t tell, and MacMaster was supposedly trying to bring attention to the ongoing protests and crackdowns in Syria.
In MacMaster’s initial apology post, almost as a dig at the media who had just exposed him, he wrote priggishly, “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” That’s not really why he wrote the blog, of course: He’s since written a long post that makes it clear the project was more of a James Frey situation, an experiment in fiction propelled along by an uncontrollable need for attention. But he’s sort of right about the reasons his blog became so high-profile, when, in retrospect, there should have been all kinds of red flags. News outlets — including CNN and the New York Times — were willing to suspend disbelief because the blog was so perfect, the voice of someone who happened to represent perfectly what the West embraces and the Middle East represses (and yet, consider Graber’s hoax …).
American media hasn’t quite known how to cover the uprisings in the Middle East — not the what-happened bit, but the why-it-happened stuff. The average person would probably say that protesters want change, want freedom. Which is true, of course, but the things we use as shorthand for freedom in the region — rights for women and gays — aren’t what they’re rioting in the streets about. The Arab Spring is about specific economic inequalities and massively needed governmental reforms. Not everyone fighting against the regimes necessarily wants social norms on sex and gender to shift, which is a complicated thing to understand and explain. We’re eager for angles that link up the revolutions there to the freedoms that were fought for in OUR most recent revolution, the sixties, maybe — but if you impose narratives on a story, you’ll get, well, fiction.