Note: Paula Brookswas quoted in this piece as a deaf, lesbian, Washington-based blogger. A man named Bill Graber later admitted to the Post that he was Paula Brooks. Read the full story here.
In the hours after Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man from Georgia, admitted to being the writer behind “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” Syrian bloggers, the LGBT community, and those who had considered themselves personal friends of “A Gay Girl” expressed their hurt and anger at MacMaster.
For six years, MacMaster had convinced hundreds, if not thousands, of people that he was a half-American, half-Syrian lesbian woman named Amina Arraf writing first from Georgia and then Damascus.
As Amina, MacMaster wrote intimate accounts of participating in anti-regime protests, flirted with women in various countries, became a champion of LGBT rights in the Middle East, and gave a voice to closed-off Syria to the world.
But the hundreds of supporters of “A Damascus Gay Girl” have now turned on MacMaster, unsatisfied by his first apology, which read: “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. 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.”
A second apology posted by MacMaster on the blog Monday which named specific people he had hurt was not well-received, either. Italian newspaper La Stampa wrote of the apology: “The puppeteer of the Syrian blogger Amina apologizes, but there is no excuse.”
The people MacMaster personally interacted with as Amina have been perhaps the most hurt.
Amina’s girlfriend, who conducted an online relationship with a person she thought was a Syrian blogger and activist for months, and had even made plans with to meet Amina in Italy, tweeted upon hearing the news:
I'm deeply hurt. But now it's time to take care of the ones that actually fight for freedom and deserve it. #arabspring
“I just think he needs to get a life,” said Scott Palter, a Minnesota-based board game creator who chatted with ”Amina” on Yahoo groups for the past six years and even sent her Christmas cards.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a student in Jerusalem who regularly followed Amina’s blog, tweeted after finding out the news Sunday: “He is truly one of the cruelest people I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. He hurt me and others who cared deeply about Amina.”
The woman whose photo was taken off her Facebook page and used by MacMaster to be Amina, Jelena Lecic, told BBC last week, “It’s been very upsetting…that someone has been campaigning with my face on it…You have privacy settings on Facebook and it doesn’t work.”
Britta Froelicher, MacMaster’s wife, told the Post that she didn’t know about the blog until this weekend. “Furious does not begin to describe my feelings,” she said. “He did it, it’s done. I’m surprised he let it go as far as it did.”
Other supporters of Amina, such as Paula Brooks, the District-based editor of the blog Lez Get Real and the person who first encouraged her to set up “A Damascus Gay Girl,” says that the news is “breaking my heart.”
Brooks, who is deaf, said, “I don’t have a voice in real life. Lez Get Real is my face. It says what I wish I could say if I had a real voice, and Amina seems to be taking that from me.”
An apology for hosting Amina’s posts on the Lez Get Real site read: “Were we used by this person? Yes. Did we believe her? Yes. Did we care what happened to her? Damn yes. And that’s what hurts so much.”
The LGBT community in the Middle East was also not pleased:
@catrionadavies Amina hoax such a waste of time, remember we warned u... Other journalists not so careful ... Damaging 2 LGBT rights in MENA
Some Syrian bloggers said they were worried that MacMaster’s hoax would delegitimize their writings. Andy Carvin warned of a “crying wolf scenario.” Other bloggers said the hoax showed that journalists were needed inside Syria now more than ever.
Syrian blogger Sasa, who writes the blog Syria News Wire, says that it’s an important lesson that “none of us know how much of the news coming out of Syria is fact and how much is fiction. With almost no international journalists allowed in the country, the speculation and allegations quickly become fact.”
“Citizen journalism can not completely replace traditional journalism,” agreed Ammar Abdulhamid, a Maryland-based blogger who says he left Syria because he feared for his safety. His blog is Syria Revolution Digest.
An Egyptian blogger tweeted her frustration:
Ok world you know that the gay girl in Damascus is actually Tom in Turkey can we turn back to our human tragedy going on in Syria !?
Another Arab woman tweeted:
The #amina thing is esp frustrating cuz it was set in the middle of a revolution of non-traditional media- there are already enough doubts.
Those who didn’t know Amina but had been following the story as it unfolded were just as angry. A commenter on “Composite,” a blog that sought to track down Amina, wrote:
“It is ... a warning to all activist-bloggers, and anyone engaging in anything on the Internet really, that things are not always as them seem. In this age of political and human rights activism we are so keen to believe in everyone’s story.”