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.