Dispatch

The Dark Closet

Don’t let the Amina hoax distract attention from the plight of the real gay community in Syria.

DAMASCUS, Syria In a city like Damascus, with its beautiful culture, amazing people, lovely food, and unmatchable history, one feels like they could be anything -- anything but gay, that is.

When Tom MacMaster, an American master's degree student living in Scotland, revealed himself to be the writer behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, it shattered the trust between the Middle Eastern blogosphere and the foreign media, and endangered the lives of queer people across the region who stepped out of the closet to answer questions about "Amina," MacMaster's fictional creation.

I remember sitting on a balcony overlooking rainy Damascus this April with my best friend in the city, who happens to be a lesbian, chatting about the queer community here.

She once asked me to pretend to be a fictional man interested in marrying her girlfriend to assuage the suspicions of the girlfriend's family that she was gay. The family needed to hear a voice behind this man, and we gave them one: I pretended to be a Syrian man living in the United States who met their daughter online and was calling on Skype to chat with the mother about future arrangements. The mother was so relieved to receive evidence that her daughter was not gay. The conversation was short, and I felt awkward about pretending to be someone I wasn't.

The conversation on the balcony turned to another problem my friend was facing: She was having problems coming out to her close friends and family members. I could see it in her eyes -- she was struggling. And sitting on the balcony with her, I suddenly had a suspicion about Amina. If my friend, one of the bravest women I've ever met, can't be out of the closet in Damascus, and if I faced so many problems with my family since my teenage years due to my homosexuality, how could the "gay girl of Damascus" be so boldly out -- not to mention critical of President Bashar al-Assad's regime -- and gain acceptance and protection from her family?

My suspicions hardened when I went back to her blog to read the post, "My father, the hero," that had first garnered her widespread attention. Honestly, I didn't believe a word of it. Any person who lived in Syria knows that authorities coming to pick up a suspect in the "wee small hours" are not going to back off because of a speech, as Amina described the incident. They are not going to be shamed by anyone. Actually, after such a confrontation, arresting both Amina and her father would have been unavoidable.

It all felt so fictional, so unimaginable, so untrue. Upon Amina's fictional arrest, I shared my views with my lesbian friends, asking them on a secret Facebook group whether anyone knew of her or had any idea who she was. I came back empty-handed. I later shared my concerns with NPR journalist Andy Carvin, whom I'm happy to call a friend, and he started asking questions.

MacMaster's admission on June 12 that the blog was fictional has spurred fears within Syria's LGBT community of a potential backlash. The media has been targeting minorities who are seen as critical of the current regime, and the LGBT community is an easy target. They don't need to change people's opinion of homosexuals; it's already a negative one.

For my part, I started to cover my online tracks. For years, I've been outspoken on Twitter to bring the spotlight to the challenges faced by the LGBT community in the Middle East and Africa. I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I've been forced back into the closet online. Amina's arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.

I have lived in Egypt and Lebanon and visited other Arab countries. Each time I traveled across the Arab world, I could see that the Syrian LGBT community was the weakest link in the region. Socially, Syria is still stuck in the 1980s, shielding itself from any foreign influence. This practice has wounded the gay community: Boys and girls cannot have a choice about gender identity or sexual preference; they are simply not exposed to information about the global struggle for gay rights. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Syria are struggling on their own, with no safety net to fall into.

As one of the very few people out of the closet in Syria, I can tell you it is not an easy road. Traditions stand in your way; your masculinity is brought into question on every corner and from every person. Honor killings, while usually targeting women rumored to be promiscuous, can also target any man rumored to be gay.

The threat of violence is real. My father once pulled a gun and pointed it at my face during a fight about my homosexuality. Eight years later, my relationship with my family is still strained; I have been living on my own since I was 17, and I'm monitored by my father during any conversation with my siblings to make sure I don't spread the gayness around. The fictional Amina's fictional father, who was so supportive of her lesbianism, is something I long for. It is something I dream of.

In Syria, gay people are ghosts traveling the Internet, dating websites, and Damascus's famous Shalan Street, roaming for each other and looking for a release. We have never built the momentum necessary for an actual movement, which would allow us to fight for our right to exist out in the open. Before that battle, there's first the struggle -- to accept oneself for who you are.

Although the general situation is undoubtedly gloomy, there are several specific instances of progress from which I can take hope. My lesbian friend with whom I talked on the balcony that rainy Damascus day just told her cousin that she is gay; the cousin, a common friend, accepted her. Another gay Syrian friend who lives in Canada came out of the closet to his family and is now finally confronting their expectations that he marry. These are the real gay people of Syria. These are the ones fighting the good fight -- not a fake blogger misleading the world about the LGBT community in Syria.

Listen to the sounds of the real struggle from real people. But don't lose your trust with those trying to create a real movement in Syria's LGBT community -- we need your help now more than ever. Don't let some dude pecking away at a keyboard in the dark in the comfort of his house in Scotland take your attention away from the real story.

Dispatch

The Big Test

Does China's nerve-racking gaokao college-entrance exam really identify the country's best and brightest, or is it even sillier and more unfair than the SAT?

SHANGHAI — For three days each June, all of China quiets to a whisper. In Shanghai, the ever-present construction crews are furloughed, and thousands of uniformed signal guards are deployed to stop drivers from sounding their horns. Similar noise-reduction campaigns are put in place in other cities across the country. The aim is to provide the most peaceful atmosphere possible for China's roughly 9 million high school seniors, who, armed with yellow pencils, dutifully scribble answers on an exam they believe will shape their destiny: the gaokao, or "big test."

The gaokao is China's college-entrance exam, the world's largest high-stakes test. Everyone takes it at the same time -- June 7 to 9 this year -- and has only one shot. It lasts nine hours total and includes segments on math, Chinese, and English, plus two optional subjects, such as geography, chemistry, or physics. The results are the sole criteria determining college placement in mainland China. While a high score can win entry for a poor farmer's son in remote Gansu province to elite Peking University, a lackluster score can relegate him to an underfunded backwater school with peeling paint and unqualified professors, or shut fast the doors to college entirely.

The test is seen, rightly, as a bright dividing line in a young person's life. Do well, and you've earned a chance to join the elite; do poorly, and your prospects dim dramatically. That might sound harsh, but when the test was first launched, the vision behind it was utopian. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong shut universities and sent intellectuals to labor in fields, China's universities were reopened and the entrance exam was launched in 1977. Like the United States' SAT, which was designed by Princeton University psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham and first administered in 1926, the aim of the gaokao was to identify the country's best and brightest -- to make high test scores, not political patronage or guanxi (relationships), the ticket to a university education. In short, the dream was to enshrine a meritocracy.

But pinning such grand hopes on a single yardstick invariably leads to discontent. In the 1980s, U.S. journalists such as Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, and the Atlantic's James Fallows began to question whether the SATs, as the latter put it, "really discover the best and the brightest?" Educators in the United States have also wondered whether a focus on testing distracts from other forms of learning. So too in China, it turns out. Although the SAT and gaokao are quite different in their actual content, Chinese educators, writers, parents, and students now assail the gaokao along similar lines: Is the test fair? Is the information useful? Do the wealthy have a head start? Does an emphasis on test preparation crowd out other learning? Yet absent clear alternatives, no large-scale reform seems imminent.

Charisette Li is now a senior at prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou. The daughter of a middle-school teacher, she grew up in the blackened industrial city of Dongguan. Gregarious and cheerful, with hip chunky glasses, a quick smile, and a penchant for American pop music, she achieved a high score that earned her admission to a top university. When she graduates in a month, she will begin an internship at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, an enviable perch. She is, in other words, someone who emerged a winner from China's high-stakes testing system. But looking back to her time boarding at Dongguan Experimental High School, she now questions the all-consuming imperative of studying for gaokao:

In high school, everything I did was about the gaokao. I can't even imagine what I was going to do or be after school. The only thing I have to care about was to get into a top university.... My classmates and I spent almost all our time on campus. We were not allowed to go out on weekdays, only maybe Sunday afternoon to buy some things, with permission. Or on Saturday night, our parents could visit. Mostly, to go out you needed a ticket from the teacher that you had an important reason. Otherwise we were mostly locked in. They thought we had to be locked in, in order to guarantee that we would all be on track. They thought: The stricter the rules, the better our grades will be. Usually our parents don't ask questions; they just accept the system.

The oddest thing, as Li sees it now, is that what she learned for the test wasn't terribly useful afterward. Once she started at university, she quickly forgot the battery of facts she had devoted the previous four years to memorizing. It wasn't "important to real life," she says, concluding, "All the students were working so hard toward one goal; I just did it without thinking, 'What for?' But now, I'm different -- now I want to know the reason for what I do."

Li's concerns about the test -- that the pressure is overwhelming, but its assessment of intelligence or future potential is imprecise -- are hardly unique. Among Chinese researchers and educators, criticism has been bubbling for years. Last year, even the state-run China Daily newspaper wrote about the results of a study tracking 1,000 top gaokao scorers over 30 years. Not one, the paper reported, had an outstanding career afterward.

Others worry about whether the test is truly fair: Do students who attend the best secondary schools and whose parents fork out for expensive test-prep tutors inevitably earn the highest scores? The gaokao is "expected to be the great equalizer, to ensure that a peasant's son from Gansu has the same doors open as a Shanghai official. But it is a noble lie," one disillusioned university official told me. "The test is not a useful measure, and the notion that society is built on equal access to opportunity is false."

A few students are now seeking to get around the test entirely. As Shanghai-based education consultant Lucia Pierce told me, an increasing number of wealthy Chinese students seek to be admitted to colleges in the United States and elsewhere (and thus study for the SATs instead). A handful of elite colleges in China now offer limited early-admissions slots that don't require the gaokao, typically for students who've won national awards in high school or taken additional tests offered by the schools. Yet both options are practical only for a sliver of graduates.

As for reforming the gaokao, the prospects seem dim. Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Peking University High School, recently penned a lengthy essay in the Diplomat exploring possible alternatives, but in the end admitted a failure of imagination:

So, if we were to start from scratch and try to build an alternative to the gaokao, we would end up with as the only viable alternative...the gaokao. That's what a lot of people tend to forget: that given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China's endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China's [scarce] education resources.

That sentiment is fairly widespread. In a country where corruption and suspicion are endemic, many believe that everything has a price, even favorable teacher recommendations and grade-point averages. The test, for all its brutality, does produce a clean numerical score -- and those scores can be ranked. As a recent graduate of Beijing Language and Culture University, a midtier school, told me: "If there was no gaokao, there would only be guanxi."

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images