Posted at 04:28 AM ET, 06/13/2011

Tom MacMaster, the man behind ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus:’ ‘I didn’t expect the story to get so big’


Online activists called for the release of Amina Arraf, who turned out to be a character created by Tom MacMaster. (Via the FreeAmina Facebook group)

Update: Tom MacMaster posted a longer apology to his blog Monday.

On Sunday, “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” turned out to be a married man from Georgia.

The blog about a half-American, half-Syrian lesbian woman that had captivated the world with intimate accounts of life from within Syria turned out to be written by a 40-year-old American man named Tom MacMaster.

On Friday the Washington Post was the first news organization to contact him with suspicions that he was behind the blog. On Sunday morning, a pro-Palestinian web site Electronic Intifada published his name in connection to Amina. Later that day, MacMaster wrote on the blog that he had been its author.

In a series of phone calls throughout the weekend, MacMaster first denied any connection to the site. On early Monday morning MacMaster ,in a phone call from his vacation in Istanbul, finally talked about why he did it, whether his wife knew and what he regrets.

On why he first set up the blog:

The biggest reason was that I found that when I argued, debated and made points that I knew to be factually sound on issues relating to Middle East by myself, I got pushback. I was prevented from [saying] what I was trying to say. I created a relatively simple character, so when I commented on blogs or in a discussion online, it [was] not going to be about me. Then when I created a character, they needed an identity other than a name, and this character sprang into play with a clear voice. I would think about if Amina were walking down the street here, what would she say? It started as a casual thing, but it steadily grew.

I had written a couple of fantasy novels. My experience has been with my fiction that if I can get five people to read it and finish it, I’m doing good. I wasn’t expecting it to get like this.

When all the attention came, I thought here is an opportunity to put forward some things I thought were important: issues around Middle East conflict, religious subjects. However, I also had a real ego boost in thinking that, “I’m good. I’m smart. These journalists don’t realize I’m punking them.”

I was vain enough to think that even if it wasn’t my name, I was seeing my words in print.

On June 6, a post on “A Gay Girl in Damascus” by “Amina’s cousin” said she had been kidnapped. MacMaster explains why he decided to disappear.

I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story. I didn’t expect the story to get so big .... I’ve been feeling for a while that it had gotten too big. I had been struggling for a way to let things up.

On why he decided to make Amina gay:

It was part of the challenge of being someone who wasn’t me. It was a way of also drawing attention to things, I do think there is a certain orientalism, where we in the West tend to pay more attention to people that are like us, people we can relate to, someone marginalized is more interesting.

I also think I wanted to show that in Syria, too, there are people who are all different, gay, straight, people of every possible permutation.

MacMaster chatted with a woman in Canada and a blogger in D.C., posing as Amina, the lesbian. He says he feels sorry for deceiving them:

The woman in Canada, I owe her a genuine apology. I set Amina up as a lesbian to improve my creative writing quality. With everything there [the woman in Canada] is the thing that I’m most upset about. I understand that [the LGBT community is upset], but I was trying to present issues.

When asked if he had sexual chats with any women, Macmaster said:

No, not really. That was not what it was about. I was just going along with it. I hadn’t thought it out. Suddenly it got more complicated than I expected.

MacMaster’s wife, Britta Froelicher, knew about the blog from its inception, according to MacMaster.

She’s a graduate student in Syrian politics, so our normal dinner table conversation is about Syria, and she would help me hash things out. While the writing has been mine, she’s been helping out. She thinks I’m ridiculous. But she knew I was chatting with women, she’s fine with everything. [During a follow-up interview we conducted with Froelicher, she says that while she did know about the blog, she had never seen it and did not know it had been written from the perspective of a woman until this weekend. We’ll post that interview soon.]

MacMaster, who was a member of a Palestine activist group in Georgia called Atlanta Palestine Solidarity, talks about his early history in the group’s message forums:

Some people didn’t take me seriously. [The Atlanta Palestine Solidarity group I belonged to said] that I had written some statements that were too extreme for the group. I had written on current events at the time.

I’ve been accused of being of a misongyist, a homophobe, a racist, and just about everything else.

Syrian bloggers have said they feel like MacMaster has deligitimized their blogs. MacMaster says he feels sorry about that:

I feel really awful about the fact that the Syrian government has been claiming that the Western government is making up stories, and now they can use me as evidence. That allows them to steer away from real things happening in Syria. My advice to everyone paying attention to this blog is pay attention to the real stories coming out of the Middle East.

MacMaster also talked about why he had decided to come clean:

I’ve been feeling for a while that it had gotten too big and I wanted to shut things down. I’d had been struggling about how to wrap things up, before things got too out of control.

I feel bad about misleading people. I’m trying to stop that completely and come clean.

No, I don’t think I need to seek professional help. I always knew that it was a role playing game for me. I just never expected it to get so out of hand. It will be hard to give up blogging. But I’ll be working on my dissertation now.

When asked to pass the phone to Britta, MacMaster said:

No, I want to take full guilt for this.

Britta talked to us on Monday. We’ll have our interview with her up soon.

MORE COVERAGE:

“A Gay Girl in Damascus” comes clean

Syrian troops seize restive northern town

Photos: Syria launches attacks on town amid protests

By and  |  04:28 AM ET, 06/13/2011

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company