The recent revelation that the Syrian blogger activist “Gay Girl in Damascus” was actually “Straight American Man in Scotland” Tom MacMaster sent ripples through international media circles and left deep scars in the LGBTI community.
But why is this hoax so potentially harmful?
It comes down to identity and rights. This case touches on some of the core issues surrounding identity and human rights – especially online.
Real LGBTI people living in repressive societies often assume false identities when they go online – it is an important safety measure. It is this very capability that draws many LGBTI people to the internet in the first place – as a safe communications and community space.
The rights to anonymity and privacy online must remain respected and protected. A recent UN report on freedom of expression and the internet
noted that throughout history willingness to engage in debate on controversial topics in public spaces has been linked to the ability to do so anonymously.
APC’s exploratory EroTICs research from Lebanon carried out just last year shows that since the 1990s the internet has served as an essential platform for queer women to seek each other out privately and anonymously, without the fear of prosecution (homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon as it is in Syria). Our research in South Africa also demonstrates that transgender people find the internet a safe space in a frequently hostile society for experimentation and self-discovery.
Now the integrity and the safety of this platform is at risk.
MacMasters, in claiming that his fictitious lesbian persona had been arrested by Syrian authorities, lends credence to the claim of many repressive regimes that LGBTI movements within their countries are somehow alien or under foreign influence.
His actions have dealt a massive blow to the credibility of the very people he claims he was trying to help. Worse, he may put real people at risk.
“Ironically Mr MacMaster’s defence — that he was afraid to speak out for fear of ridicule or harassment — speaks to the very fears that lesbians in many countries experience on a daily basis,” says Joy Liddicoat of APC’s Connect Your Rights! Campaign.
In addition his unlicensed use of Jelena Lecic’s image is a harmful theft of her identity and a violation of her right to privacy.
Finally MacMaster’s approach was flawed. Lesbians and other sexual minorities are not the only people who care about LGBTI rights. Anyone regardless of their sexual orientation can stand up and show that the rights of LGBTI are important to them.
The message from APC: Join the movement – don’t undermine it. “Real men” will openly stand up for human and LGBTI rights.
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