A few days ago, to quote Wikipedia’s front page news blurb, “A Gay Girl In Damascus, a popular opposition blog about the 2011 Syrian uprising, is revealed to be a hoax.”
Which is a factually true statement: the blog is a hoax, perpetuated by a 40-year old straight white cis man from the USA. Tom MacMaster, the hoax perpetuator, apparently wanted to go on vacation unemcumbered by the burdens imposed by having a fake identity, so he told his readers that the blog’s fake author had been kidnapped by Syrian authorities and that there were fears for said fake blogger’s life.
Because the fake author’s continued blogging would have been extraordinarily subversive and dangerous, a violent end to the (fake) author seemed a somewhat inevitable conclusion to her (fake) activism. After the (fake) author penned their tragic farewell, the internet took up the charge, and within hours of the original post, concerned activists used Facebook & other social media sites to organize & ask readers from all over the world to contact their respective Syrian ambassadors about the (fake) author’s arrest. Large news outlets got into the effort, and apparently the US State department was looking into the matter, as Amina was a (fake) citizen of the USA.
Infuriatingly, all of that energy was for naught, as the attention of the world quickly turned up unanswerable questions: Why has no one spoken to Amina on the phone? Why are there no records of her citizenship? Why is her IP address registered in Scotland? Why do Amina’s descriptions of sex sound like play-by-play recitations of “girl-on-girl” porn with women who have 4-inch long nails? Why can no one get any of her family members on the phone? Why are all of her self-portraits pictures of a woman in London?
And so: A Gay Girl in Damascus was revealed to be a hoax.
Then, two days later, the founder and editor of Lez Get Real, another LGBT-issues community-facing blog, was exposed as a 58 year old straight white cis man pretending to be a deaf lesbian parent.
If you, hypothetical internet reader, are unfamiliar with the situation, Autostraddle’s articles on both issues are both factually informative and a great resource for reading +400 comments about how queer folks feel when people who ought to be standing as allies create a fake personae to speak for us.
Here is Autostraddle’s first article about A Gay Girl In Damascus’ supposed abduction that was published when media attention was revealing unanswerable questions about the blog.
Here is Autostraddle’s article about Amina and A Gay Girl in Damascus being revealed as a fake perpetuated by Tom MacMasters, a hypocritical top contender for the award for the World’s Most Privileged White Dude Who Would Not Know How To Apologize If An Apology Gave Him Instructions And Then Smacked Him In The Face.
And here is Autostraddle’s article about the Lez Get Real fraud perpetuated by Bill Graber. Warning: includes a photo of Graber, who is a seriously creepy looking as his name.
Bonus: the Rumpus originally published poet Brian Spear’s excellent essay A Note To My Fellow White Men, which is exactly the advice that straight white dudes like Graber and MacMasters need to hear and probably won’t listen to.
Also: Geek Porn Girl’s excellently titled summary of the Bill Graber/Paula Brooks/Lez Get Real debacle, Internet Brings Men Together, as Lesbians.
SO: The last few days have been a clusterfuck of exploding fake identities and I have a lot of feelings about this. Like, a lot of feelings. A bajillion feelings. I’d like to note that while most of the rest of this post will be about me, where I am coming from, which, I feel, is a somewhat peculiar place that has its own kind of privileges, the ramifications of Bill Graber and Tom MacMaster’s actions are much more important than my own semi-existential questioning of how to be taken seriously on the internet as a queer woman using a pseudonym. However, I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about how this clusterfuckery is going to affect anyone but me, and after writing the rest of post that comes after this, I’ve gotten too angry to do anything more than swear every other word at MacMasters and Graber. SO: as a queer woman on the very periphery of the LGBT blogsphere, this is my attempt at understanding my reaction to this whole… thing.
I’m hoping that this doesn’t actually come to a surprise to anyone, but Kira Scarlet is not my given name. I write under a pseudonym. I sell my artwork under a pseudonym. I feel like I have legitimate needs and reasons for doing so and, among other unforgivable acts, fraud perpetuators like MacMasters and Graber have made my choices to obfuscate my legal identity and the work I’ve created under this pseudonym need justification.
I value my privacy to a point that stops just short of paranoia — after a combination of stalker-ish folks, strange people accosting me on my driveway, co-worker who got into my house & threatened me with a knife and that persistent dude who would call from random phone numbers in the middle of the night and whisper my name and then make masturbatory noises, I don’t feel like my fears or my value of privacy are misplaced.
But now, after two relatively high-profile female bloggers it feels like everything that I write is now more likely to be seen as a lie, as a potential attempt at covering up… well, me. Despite the fact that I am verifiably a person who embroiders at events in which there is not enough light to actually embroider well, I definitely engage in all kinds of avoidance behaviour that must raise all kinds of red flags, particularly in the wake of this douche-canoe clusterfuck:
My desire not to post photos of myself is now interpretable as an inability to publish photos of myself that match my female-bodied identity (though, it now occurs to me, I actually have posted photos of here, here); if I do publish photos of myself, they must be fake. When, occasionally, I manage to write well or eloquently from my own experiences, I’m simply pulling an Arthur Golden and have simply researched my lies well. Those drawings I provide for bio/press stuff instead of photos? More excuses.
And no matter how many times I write or type “THIS IS TRUE”, the point is that those protestations mean nothing, and, thanks to MacMasters and Graber, the implicit trust that makes blogging communities possible has been damaged, perhaps permanently.
I don’t know what our options are going from here as a culture on the internet. I don’t know what my options are as a woman who wants both privacy and to be taken seriously (GAH, even that! Both of them kept repeating: I wouldn’t have been taken seriously if I’d been honest) (or rather, I would have been open to valid community criticism if I’d been honest). If I am serious about establishing trust with my readers, do I stop using a pseudonym and give out my legal name? Because here’s the thing: I am really, really not sold on using one’s real name.
Storytime! Or, Why Real Names Can Suck
Back in 2005 I made a film about mental health — specifically my own experience with mental health, and lack thereof— and, after entering it into some film festivals, put it onto the internet via Google Videos. At the time, Facebook had been around for barely two years and was only accessible to folks with a .EDU extension on their email address; the idea that one could have an internet trail of information that would affect one’s future employment was relatively alien.
In the world of the internet in 2005 — which isn’t really that long ago in calendar measures, but is a world away in terms of how we use the internet and what information the internet contains — I’d recently had a traumatic experience and wanted to push back at the forces that were telling me that I had to be ashamed for struggling. So I made a short film about my experiences and my perspectives and, as an effort to de-stigmatize mental health, put my name — my entire, legal name — onto the films and into the information asked by film festivals. On Google Videos, the film eventually got 20k views — again, while Google Videos was still competing with YouTube — and I was able to speak with many folks about mental health. The psychologist I was seeing at the time ended up asking to use the film as a teaching tool, and at the SF Short Film Festival, I ended up a finalist for the Director’s Choice Award (and maybe won it, though I don’t have that email anymore).
And if that last paragraph sounds self-congratulatory, it is. I made a film I was proud of — am still proud of — that hopefully contributed slightly to de-stigmatizing mental health. I believe that putting my legal name on my work, by not hiding behind a pseudonym, that I was practicing what I was attempting to preach: that there is nothing wrong with struggling, and that there are real people who have issues and that we are human, too.
But, um, to quote the Fellowship of the Ring and ominous-sounding Cate Blanchette, the world has changed. What made sense at the time is now a liability to me. When people – potential employers, who will affect my ability to eat and pay rent and get health insurance – run a search for my full legal name (OK, so I’m mostly guessing that people Google me. I’m not special nor famous; they probably Google you, too.), they come up with my film about mental health and my mental health.
But the solution is simple, you say. Just take the fucking video down if you don’t want people to see it. Sacrifice your vanity on the alter of dignity! Or something.
Except that scrapper video sites ended up with my film, somehow (also why? Fake skincare scrapper SEO site, my film is not an advertisement for skincare products and will definitely not help you sell your fake keyword creams), and for the first three pages of Google search results for my name, you get me, my film, and the words MENTAL HEALTH MENTAL HEALTH SELF INJURY SELF INJURY SELF INJURY repeated over and over again, all hosted on sites that I have no control over & can’t find the email addresses to send cease and desist notices to.
SO: The point of this storytime is that I tried authenticity, and full frontal honesty, and right now I’m pretty sure that the only thing it’s gotten me is a need to never give prospective employers my middle name.
Also, somewhat less flippantly, the internet is changing so quickly, that one action that was once safe and unremarkable can turn into something you have no control over.
So what to do? Should we all come up with persistent nicknames that we only give to people we know in real life, and hide our information and our selves in those identities? Of course, then you’ve got asshats like Eric Shmidt who tell the universe that if you don’t disclose everything, you have something to hide. Except in the case of A Gay Girl in Damascus, Tom MacMasters, Lez Get Real and Bill Graber, this actually turned out to be true, which leaves me with all kinds of questions about where to go from here, like:
Is there a difference between privacy and honesty? Is it possible to maintain authenticity and privacy at once? Can there be trust without full disclosure? What about folks like me, who feel like we’ve got something to hide from? Is there a difference between obfuscating an identity and creating a new one? Can blogs exist without establishing a compact based in trust with their readership? To be or not to be?
I have no answers, just a burning desire to use the word douche-canoe as many times as possible.