The Real World of Gay Girls in Damascus
The struggles of Syrian lesbians are very different from Tom MacMaster's fantasy – even if they also involve deception.
By Daniel Nassar
Wednesday 15 June 2011
Despite his attempts, Tom MacMaster, the man behind the fake persona of the Gay Girl in Damascus blogger, never accurately represented the LGBT community in Syria. Lesbians here, or the multiple friends and acquaintances I know personally from that community, all agree that he did not speak to them, from them or about them.
The struggles and fears of the lesbian community in Syria are very different from the politically enhanced, sexually detailed fictional misadventures of MacMaster. "Amina", an outspoken out-of-the-closet lesbian in Syria supported by her family, just did not seem real to me or to my lesbian friends.
Her blogpost, "My father, the hero", was the final nail in Amina's fictional coffin. Aside from the fact that her father's support seemed unreal to us, anyone with a minor knowledge of the regime here knows that the story was unbelievably naive: there is no talking to police officers ordered to bring someone to questioning. There is no speech on planet Earth that could have stopped them from taking Amina. If anything, the fictional speech of the father might have ended in the disappearance of both him and his daughter.
In Syria, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by three years in prison, the lesbian community faces traditions, forced marriages and family pressure. Syria, like any typical country in the Middle East, smears the lesbian community with labels and misjudgments – and it is these that the community is more interested in facing at the moment.
I was lucky enough to find myself a friend here in Damascus after eight years living abroad. I had run away from the city around the age of 19 following an incident with my father, who was threatening my life after I came out of the closet.
When I came back to the city I did not know anyone. Mariam, a 22-year-old lesbian who happened to be a colleague of mine, took my hand and introduced me to the secret underground lesbian community in Damascus – a community I did not expect to be as strong as it really is.
I got to know many lesbian women here in Damascus: they consider each other family; they call each other sisters and they stand strong to protect one another. The lesbian community here knows that being a gay woman is double the struggle in Syria, where women's rights and gay rights are almost a myth.
The most intensive and biggest battle the lesbian community has to face here is its members' relationships with their families. The family expects a Syrian woman to be married in her early to mid 20s; it's a deadline that means to most lesbians the end of their sexual life and accepting a life-long partnership in a miserable marriage with a man.
At the age of 18, Sally, a lesbian friend of mine, has already been told by her mother that her relationship with her girlfriend (Mariam) is suspicious. Sally, however, found a loophole; she created the fictional character of Maher, a Syrian man she is supposedly in love with. Emails between Sally and her "Maher" have been reviewed by the mother and once I was asked by Mariam to talk to Sally's mother on Skype, pretending to be speaking from the US.
This silly hoax, while turning into a joke between the three of us, saved Sally from being forced to marry a cousin, or worse: facing family dishonour. We managed to buy Sally some time, but for how long?
Even the women who are strong enough to stand up to their families, rather than trick them to buy time or give into their pressure to get married, are facing society on their own in a battle they know they might lose.
Amal, 28, was punched in the face by her brother after she came out to him. She was left homeless, looking for a place to stay and makeup to hide her black eye. Amal lives at the moment on her own; her relationship with her family is strained and her brother still holds a grudge against her, calling her sinful, shameful and a threat to his family's name.
Amal was also the victim of a sexual predator who pretended to be a lesbian woman online: they talked for months and he used photos of his own wife during their online conversation. He almost raped her on their first "date" but she was a fighter and managed to escape.
Sitting in a cafe with Mariam and Amal, I was introduced to May, a 36-year-old lesbian living happily with her girlfriend. May was furious as she had heard someone was spreading rumours around the workplace that her girlfriend is one of the people working against the Syrian regime.
"These accusations during the current situation are extremely harmful," she told me. "I don't know how to stop the rumour. I want to find that person and stick my foot in his mouth."
She looks behind her back, gets closer to me and whispers: "I know that whichever way things turn out in Syria, my rights as an individual who belongs to the LGBT community are never to be acknowledged, not by the current regime, not by anyone else who might come after."
These are the real lesbians in Damascus: the smart and strong women fighting the good fight. In this fight they do not need more attention from the families who are watching Syrian national TV as it trumpets the fact that a US citizen pretended to be a Syrian lesbian. They don't need more attention from authorities who might target them to make sure a real Amina does not exist. They don't need people using their label to benefit themselves. Tom MacMaster brought their struggles to light in a society that would never accept them at present, and his infamous hoax is likely to cause them further damage.
Names of the Syrian lesbians mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identity.