A Gay Girl in Damascus: Anatomy of a Hoax

by thethreepennyguignol

In Syria, on 6th June 2011, Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, a lesbian blogger from Syria who ran the popular site A Gay Girl in Damascus, had been the victim of a violent abduction, causing an international outcry and campaigns across traditional and social media to try and ensure her freedom. In May of that same year, Guardian journalist Katherine Marsh described Amina as “a heroine of the Syrian revolt”, thanks to her “brutally honest” depiction of life as an LGBTQ person and a woman during the tumultuous period in the country’s history.

But what the people fighting so passionately for her release didn’t know is that the person behind that blog was perfectly safe – and, in fact, was holidaying in Turkey with his wife at the time. Because the person who had been writing A Gay Girl in Damascus, and posing as the Syrian-American lesbian involved with the Syrian uprisings in 2011, was actually Tom MacMaster, an American man from Georgia who had been posing as Amina for at least five years prior to his exposure.

Amina’s first appearance online is hard to track, but defunct pages on sites like Myspace tracked the beginning of her internet presence: conversations in a Yahoo group called alternate-history in 2006, and a lesbian dating app featuring a 2007 profile called “almondeyez” where she described herself as “the coolest, sexiest half-Arab SF loving geek girl you’ll ever meet” seemed to mark the beginning of her fossilized internet history.

Her story, as tracked in blog posts and in an autobiography that she wrote about her life, follows a Syrian-American citizen bon in Virginia in 1975, and moved to Syria at six months old, spending her childhood between the two countries. At fifteen, she realized she was gay, a terrifying notion for a devout Muslim, though she came out at 26 and eventually moved back to Syria to teach English there, until the Syrian uprising led to her classes being shut down.

But it wasn’t until 2011 that Amina became a formidable force in the blogging scene. Initially containing her discussions to message boards and servers, she eventually started posting on Lez Get Real, a website covering lesbian news and commentary, and wrote a few posts for the site, eventually starting her own blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, in February of 2011.

A Gay Girl in Damascus purported to capture “An out Syrian lesbian’s thoughts on life, the universe and so on”, and soon, Amina’s frank discussion of her sexuality and her experiences and involvement in the Syrian uprising captured attention and imagination across the world. She wrote of clandestine lesbian relationships, meeting a group of other gay Syrian women in a beauty salon in the city, and being tear-gassed for her involvement in anti-Government protests; her blog was widely shared, an on-the-ground look into Damascene life and LGBTQ struggles in Syria at the time, where homosexuality was and still is illegal.

But it was a post in April 2011 that really caught the attention of a wider audience, as Amina published an article entitled “My Father the Hero”, in which she described her father’s quick thinking in protecting Amina from detention by two security agents, seeking her out with accusations that she was a foreign agent. After that, she described going on the run, moving between different locations and concealing herself in a box truck, posing as her father’s wife in order to avoid detection: according to her blog, it was only a matter of time before authorities managed to capture her for her outspoken involvement in the uprising and advocacy for LGBTQ rights in Syria.

Eventually, Amina’s supporters were confronted with the worst news they could imagine: Amina had been abducted on her way to meet with protest organizers on June 6th, 2011. Her cousin, Rania Ismail, picked up her story where Amina had been unable to continue it: “Amina was seized by three men in their early 20s… the men were armed, and Amina hit one of them”.

The response was immediate and overwhelming. More than 15,000 people joined a Facebook group calling for her release from detention, and Twitter was flooded with the hashtag #FreeAmina. The Guardian, the New York Times, and the BBC all covered the story, including Amina’s recent adbuction. Andrew Belonsky, an American journalist, called upon the US government to get involved with the case and ensure her freedom, and the US State Department confirmed a day later that they were looking into securing Amina’s release. Amina had come to represent the plight of LGBTQ people and especially queer women in Syria, and her abduction became a near-frantic trigger point for an intense campaign to support LGBTQ people in the Middle East.

But, only two days after her apparent abduction, a crack began to show in her story.

Jelena Lečić, a Croatian woman living in England, released a statement: the pictures that Amina had posted on her blog were not of the gay Syrian-American national, as she had claimed, but of Jelena. The Guardian and The Huffington Post quickly removed Jelena’s pictures from the articles about Amina, but many people reasoned that this revelation wasn’t worth reading too much into: after all, plenty of Syrian activists had to protect their identities in order to remain safe, and Amina had more reason than most to be fearful of what would happen if she was exposed.

But, as Tom MacMaster and his wife holidayed in Istanbul, the truth behind Amina was about to come out.

Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty, writing for Electronic Intifada, compiled a compelling assortment of evidence that Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari had never existed, and that, in fact, the author of the blog was Tom MacMaster. An address shared by Amina was the same was that of MacMaster and his wife; pictures taken by MacMaster’s wife, Britta Froelicher, had appeared on Amina’s blog, and the creator of Lez Get Real, the lesbian news site that Amina had written for, reported that the IP addresses associated with the account matched with those at the University of Edinburgh, where MacMaster had been a post-graduate student at the time.

MacMaster, when asked for comment, initially denied the accusations – “I understand there are a number of unusual coincidences regarding the blogger and either me or my wife. Those are, as far as I am aware, simply unusual” – but eventually, he had no choice but to come clean. On the 13th June 2011, MacMaster posted to A Gay Girl in Damascus once more with “Apology to Readers”, in which he revealed that Amina was fictional and entirely created by him.

But MacMaster didn’t seem to actually show a lot of contrition or regret for his deceit. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” he wrote in his apology blog post. “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone – I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

And, in later interviews, that point of view began to make more sense. MacMaster had created Amina, originally, because he felt that his point of view as a white American man married to a woman wasn’t taken seriously in discussions on the Middle East. MacMaster and his wife were both deeply involved with the study of Middle Eastern politics, with MacMaster being a part of the Atlanta Palestinian Solidarity group, but MacMaster was unhappy with the way his opinions were perceived. He claimed, in an interview with the Washington Post after his exposure, that he had been “accused of being of a misogynist, a homophobe, a racist, and just about everything else” on message boards for opinions expressed about Middle Eastern politics, though he didn’t expand on what he’d said exactly that had led to those accusations. He claimed that his intentions were honest, the blog an attempt to bring to light facts surrounding the events in Syria at the time to a Western audience. The abduction story – told by MacMaster through the fabricated character of Amina’s cousin, Rania – was intended to bring a close to the blog, with Amina escaping and deciding to close A Gay Girl in Damascus for her own safety afterwards.

Amina, MacMaster explained, was both a way for him to ensure that his voice was taken seriously in these discussions, and a chance to practice his creative writing: embodying a character so different from him would allow him to test his skills as an author, as well as trying to bring light to political and social issues in Syria at the time. He claimed that he had never intended it to gain so much attention, but also remarked that he wouldn’t have had the same international response had he started the blog in 2010 – and admitted to getting “a real ego boost in thinking that, “I’m good. I’m smart. These journalists don’t realize I’m punking them.”

The backlash was immediate. Minal Hajratwala, a bisexual activist who MacMaster had contacted with the autobiography that Amina had purportedly written, named A Thousand Sighs, decried his writing as Amina (which included such comically bad descriptions of teenage lesbian sex such as “fondling and nuzzling each other’s breasts, groping each other, and finger banging”) as “the white man’s fantasy of an oppressed yet courageous Arab women..the perfect superhero, the perfect wet dream”.

Commentators accused MacMaster of putting real Syrian LGBTQ people in danger after they outed themselves to advocate for the fictional Amina’s freedom; he was also held up as an example of Western media sharing false stories about Syria, casting more doubt on the real Syrian voices trying to be heard during the uprising in 2011. To this, MacMaster expressed remorse, and suggested that readers “… pay attention to the real stories coming out of the Middle East”.

But it wasn’t just a political impact that this revelation had: it was a personal one, too. During his time posing as Amina, MacMaster had formed a relationship with another woman. Sandra Bargaria, from Montreal, first made contact with what she thought was Amina in early 2011, and the two formed a romantic relationship via online text chats over the next few months. Amina declined video or audio calls, citing personal safety concerns as well as poor internet in Syria as reasons for keeping things strictly text-based. However, they began planning a meeting in person, intending to meet offline for the first time in July 2011, in Italy.

Bargaria, upon discovering that Amina had apparently been kidnapped in June 2011, was frantic with concern, but within days, her online romance turned out to be with Tom MacMaster, leaving Bargaria shocked and hurt. When asked about his involvement with an unnamed Canadian woman, apparently Bargaria, MacMaster admitted “The woman in Canada, I owe her a genuine apology. I set Amina up as a lesbian to improve my creative writing quality”, and when questioned on the possibility of sexual conversations with the women he had contacted, he replied “I was just going along with it. I hadn’t thought it out. Suddenly it got more complicated than I expected”. The relationship between Bargaria and Amina formed the basis for a movie entitled The Amina Profile, directed by Sophia Derapse in 2015.

As for his wife, Britta Froelicher, MacMaster claimed that she had known about the blog from the start – but she denied knowledge of the blog’s contents, saying “I knew he had a blog and we talked about Syrian politics all the time, but I never checked it”. At the time of the revelations about Amina’s real identity, Froelicher had chosen to remain married to MacMaster. “It is both of our sincere hope that people will… forgive us for the deceit,” she said. When asked why she included herself in this request for forgiveness, despite her denial of knowledge of the contents of A Gay Girl in Damascus, she replied, “because I’m married to him”.

Since the scandal broke, Tom MacMaster has flown pretty much under the radar. The University of Edinburgh, unbelievably, allowed him to return to the institution to complete a PhD a few years after the Amina exposure, and he apparently went on to teach as a history professor at Morehouse College. The A Gay Girl in Damascus blog has been removed, though a few scatterings of it remain available in various places online, if you’d care to treat yourself to the overwrought ramblings of a fictional character.

Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari didn’t exist. But LGBTQ people in Syria do. And actually engaging with their stories seems the most important part of this hoax. Here are some articles covering the experiences of real LGBTQ people in Syria, which make for far more important reading than MacMaster’s falsified Amina character. If you have any articles, charities, organisations, or blogs you’d like to share to add to this list, please let me know.

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(header image via The Guardian)