The List

Underground and in the Closet

The state of the gay Middle East.

Enough with Amina, already. The sock-puppet blogger "Gay Girl in Damascus," who turned out to be a straight guy in Scotland has captured the world's attention -- but the real gay communities in the Middle East face legal and societal discrimination every day. In most Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense, though laws are enforced to varying degrees. And the Arab Spring, which many gay-rights organizations hoped would bring greater acceptance, has proved to be an ambivalent blessing. The real gay men and women in Damascus -- and Dubai, Cairo, and Amman -- are facing more serious problems than confused Internet identities.

DUBAI

The law: The Constitution of the United Arab Emirates, which Dubai is a part of, criminalizes homosexuality, in part because it's a violation of sharia law.

The reality: Dubai, which enjoys a reputation as the most liberal emirate in the UAE, has long sustained an underground gay community. "Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!" said one young Emirati at a gay club in the city. The authorities' tolerance for its gay community, however, has always been fragile. A club was shuttered in 2001 for hosting a gay night that featured a transvestite DJ, while in 2008 police arrested 17 foreign men for allegedly being homosexual and cross-dressing.

A new police crackdown has raised gay activists' fears that the situation will get worse before it gets better. On May 31, Dubai's police launched a campaign against boyat, the rough equivalent of tomboys. In this Gulf subculture, rebellious girls sport "short pixie-style hair, wear more masculine clothing, sunglasses and watches."

Dan Littauer, the executive director of GayMiddleEast.com, a website that publishes news on LGBT issues across the region, saw the campaign as implicitly targeting Dubai's lesbians -- and as a reaction to the Arab Spring. "The Gulf is also reacting to the Arab Spring, and not only politically," he said. Gulf states "want to have a moral attempt to define Arabness and democracy."

LEBANON

The law: Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code criminalizes "unnatural sexual intercourse," and it has been used to target gay people. Lebanese gay-rights organizations have frequently expressed their desire to see the law annulled.

The reality: But Article 534 (like many laws in Lebanon) is only sporadically enforced. As the government looks the other way, gay culture has flourished in Lebanon -- so much so that the New York Times travel section recently dubbed Beirut the "Provincetown of the Middle East."

A flourishing online gay community also exists in Lebanon. Bekhsoos, the self-described "queer Arab magazine," has published weekly since September 2009. Two of its most popular articles have been an evisceration of Lebanese author Joumana Haddad for distancing herself from political feminism and the story of a man who resolves to get tested for HIV.

EGYPT

The law: There are no laws that explicitly criminalize homosexual activities in Egypt. However, a 1961 law prohibiting prostitution was reinterpreted as a prohibition on sexual "immorality" and subsequently used to prosecute gay people. "The law requires that the [homosexual conduct] be 'habitual' -- legally taken to mean that it must have been committed more than once in three years, with more than one person" to constitute a crime, according to a Human Rights Watch report on the subject.

The reality: Egypt's gay community has been forced to contend with sporadic prosecutions, including a notorious case brought against 52 gay men following a police raid on a Nile boat cruise. Egypt's revolution, however, spurred some hopes that better days were coming. Gay activists reportedly joined the anti-government protests that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. However, the increasingly frosty relationship between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the youth activists, the most pro-gay element of the revolution, has placed a chill on these prospects.

Gay activists in Egypt are also wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most powerful Islamist group. Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, specifically excluded gay rights when talking about the post-revolution freedoms Egyptians would enjoy. Mohammed Badie, the top official in the Brotherhood, also reportedly attacked Western countries for "allow[ing] gay marriage under the pretext of democracy" during a political rally in May -- a mistake, he vowed, that Egypt would never make.

The Muslim Brotherhood is saying "that anyone who is talking about gay rights … is extreme and ridiculous," said Littauer. "Some activists are very concerned."

JORDAN

The law: There are no laws that criminalize homosexuality in Jordan.

The reality: The restrictions faced by gay people in Jordan vary based on geography and wealth, said Sami al-Ali, a pseudonymous Jordan-based blogger for Gay Middle East. In the tonier parts of west Amman, the gay community is tolerated. While there are few official social networks for LGBT people there, a number of gay-friendly cafes have cropped up. However, social stigmatization has driven the gay movement underground in the rest of the country.

The Jordanian gay community has received support from Jordan's leftists, but it still faces hostility from the country's Islamist movements and from the government. "A number of citizens reported sporadic police mistreatment of suspected LGBT persons," read the State Department's 2010 human rights report on the country. "There were reports of individuals who left the country due to fear their families would punish them for their sexual orientation."

The situation is worst for transgender people. Jordan's bureaucracy does not possess a mechanism for changing one's gender on official documents. As a result, transgender Jordanians are often left with the wrong gender on their official documents -- leading to much confusion, such as in this incident, when two transgender Arabs were denied access to Egypt due to having the incorrect gender marked on their passports.

SYRIA

The law: Article 520 of the Syrian Penal Code of 1949 criminalized homosexuality as "unnatural sexual intercourse," punishable by up to three years in prison.

The reality: The situation on the ground in Syria, as described by one Syrian author's account in FP, is if anything, grimmer than the law suggests. In March and April 2010, Syrian police raided four separate gay parties held in private homes. "[R]eports indicated that dozens of gays and lesbians have been imprisoned over the past several years after being arrested on vague charges such as abusing social values, selling, buying or consuming illegal drugs, and organizing and promoting 'obscene' parties," stated the State Department's 2010 human rights report on Syria.

Unlike in Lebanon, Egypt, or even Dubai, there are few informal support networks for gay people in Syria. Sami Hamwi, a Syria-based pseudonymous blogger for Gay Middle East, said a few activists are trying to change that, but they face both societal and political obstacles. "There is no way for me to survive in my line of work if I come out," said Hamwi, adding that he had lost two jobs already because of his sexuality.

Hamwi feared that the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax would cause the Syrian security forces to escalate their crackdown against gay activists. "I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out," he said. "[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades."

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Straight Guy in Scotland

What the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax tells us about ourselves and the media in the era of the Arab Spring.

We're naive about the perils of anonymity.

It has to be said: The life of Amina Arraf was a good story. On a website called "Gay Girl in Damascus," this purportedly Syrian-American lesbian blogger wrestled with issues surrounding her national identity, her sexuality, her faith, and the future of her country at a time of open revolt. At a time when most of the information coming out of Syria comes in the form of choppy, graphic YouTube videos or breathless tweets about the Assad regime's crackdowns, here was a young woman writing from Damascus in flawless English about her country's social and political turmoil.

And then it all fell apart. Following a post on Amina's blog by her "cousin" reporting that she had been arrested and that her whereabouts were unknown, journalists and readers sprung into action, emailing one another and looking for friends and contacts who might know where she had been taken. Oddly, there were no real leads. None of the many people who had befriended her online had ever met her in person, pictures allegedly of Amina turned out to be a Croatian woman living in Britain, and an old blog written by the same person was self-described as a blend of fact and fiction -- "and I will not tell you which is which."

On June 12, Amina finally came out -- as Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man who is currently pursuing a master's degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In an initial apology post that included a hint of defiance, MacMaster admitted that Amina was fictional, but that "the facts on this blog are true and not misleading" about the events in Syria. Finally, facing international opproprium, in a more contrite June 13 post, MacMaster donned sackloth, writing, "I feel like I am in some ways the worst person in the world."

This conceit gives MacMaster too much credit. It does not take an evil genius to launch a fictional blog. MacMaster is certainly a fool (and one hopes there's no Jayson Blair-esque book deal in the offing), but the more important question is why this particular fool was able to mislead so much of the Western media, and the public it serves. Part of the reason is that media standards have yet to catch up with the realities (and temptations) of instant online publishing: Tools like e-mail, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook may represent a digital revolution, but they also can conceal an author's identity -- and, in this case, a lie that would have easily been exposed with a quick phone call.

But MacMaster's hoax has implications that go beyond the damaged credibility of the New York Times and CNN, two of the many media outlets that reported on Amina over the past several months. The story played perfectly into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's effort to portray the domestic revolt as one guided by shadowy outsiders -- indeed, Syria's official government mouthpiece prominently featured a profile of MacMaster, claiming that the hoax "aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of (sic) kidnapping bloggers and activists."


We're too eager to believe liberal interpretations of the Middle East.

Amina's great appeal was her ability to transcend religious, ethnic, and political lines. "I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer," she wrote, in a post that paid homage to both famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and American founding father Patrick Henry.

She also hated the Assad regime with a passion and offered a comforting version of post-revolutionary Syria. "The New Syria will be a better place for Kurds. It will be a better place for Muslims. It will even be a better place for Communists," she wrote. "And one thing is becoming clear; we're done with dictators and rule by strong men.… We've learned to respect one another even when we disagree."

It is a pretty thought, and perhaps there's a chance that for a segment of the population it's true. But it is also a message that Western audiences undoubtedly wanted to hear.

We like a good yarn.

The neat, linear narrative of Amina's story made it very attractive to casual readers -- not unlike fiction, funny enough -- but not quite in the way that real life often plays out.

On April 26, four days after Syrian security forces massacred at least 72 protesters in what was then the bloodiest day of the revolt, Amina broke through in the Western press in a big way. In a post titled "My father, the hero," she described a late-night visit by pro-regime enforcers intent on arresting her because of the contents of her blog. The regime thugs insult and grope Amina before being chased off by her father, who delivers an impassioned plea against religious extremism and for coexistence between the Sunni and Alawite sects.

It was all too convenient. As stability in Syria deteriorated, Amina's posts oscillated between erotic poetry and a visit to a Damascus mosque, disguised in full hijab, to meet fellow revolutionaries. Following another spasm of violence in Syria, Amina's "cousin" posted on June 6 that three men had grabbed her off the street and wrestled her into a car, and that her whereabouts were unknown.

We're suckers for a pretty face.

"I knew what she looked like in my head and I grabbed photos of a woman whom I have never met who looked exactly like what Amina should look like," MacMaster wrote in his second apology, describing how he created this character.

It just so happened that Amina's alter ego was Jelena Lucic -- a fetching, pale-skinned Croatian woman working at the Royal College in London. The images, which had been lifted from Lucic's Facebook page, helped to spur a digital romance with a Canada-based lesbian blogger that extended to over 500 emails, and still adorn Facebook groups calling for the fictional girl's release.

After the hoax became public, observers raced to point out that choice of a pretty, unveiled woman as "author"  garnered the "Gay Girl in Damascus" attention that would have been denied to other Arabs. "Tom MacMaster's ‘Freedom' is not a group of brown women shouting in solidarity with signs and heads covered, demanding that Syria is their country," wrote one incensed blogger. "Freedom is a single white face, a delicate femininity performing innocent submission for the camera, an ‘out' blogger who appears to have no community to be out to, a Syrian who is really an American, and the ‘ultimate outsider' who ends the story when she escapes from the Middle East, presumably, to return to the USA."


We missed obvious details.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how the hoax survived as long as it did. Amina supposedly hailed from a prominent Sunni family in Damascus -- very powerful, apparently. In a May 3 post, our protagonist described getting drunk with her father, who revealed that she was "on the list" of potential wives for President Bashar al-Assad. The father, increasingly intoxicated, later begins to dial Bashar's cell phone number to denounce the regime before Amina stops him.

It doesn't take an expert in Syrian politics to understand why it is far-fetched that a woman as well-known as Amina claimed to be would denounce the regime so boldly, and so openly compromise her family's position. The prospect of a Syrian-American woman from one of the country's leading families openly criticizing Assad -- and remaining free for months -- would have been unthinkable when Syria was stable, let alone during the current crackdown.

And then there are the smaller details. Amina never referenced specific locations or events in Damascus. On the rare occasions that she reached for Arabic words, she wrote them in Latin characters rather than Arabic script. Again, that's our ignorance: the overwhelming majority of her readership was unable to distinguish between a graduate student with a passing knowledge of Arab politics and language and a true native.

In late May, in a passage that likely hints at MacMaster's own reasons for dwelling on this character, Amina described why she returned to Syria from the United States. "I had vague plans to finally finish the autobiographical novel that I've been steadily working on, maybe to finish a few of the science fiction and fantasy stories I had plotted," she wrote. "I'd reconnect myself to my roots and the price seemed low."

But as the Syrian bloggers who must now work doubly hard to prove the veracity of their work can attest, it was not as low as hoped.