8:08am

Thu June 16, 2011
Opinion

Foreign Policy: Damascus Still Has Gay Girls

Daniel Nassar is the pseudonym of a Syrian man based in Damascus.

In a city like Damascus, with its beautiful culture, amazing people, lovely food, and unmatchable history, one feels like they could be anything — anything but gay, that is.

When Tom MacMaster, an American master's degree student living in Scotland, revealed himself to be the writer behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, it shattered the trust between the Middle Eastern blogosphere and the foreign media, and endangered the lives of queer people across the region who stepped out of the closet to answer questions about "Amina," MacMaster's fictional creation.

I remember sitting on a balcony overlooking rainy Damascus this April with my best friend in the city, who happens to be a lesbian, chatting about the queer community here.

She once asked me to pretend to be a fictional man interested in marrying her girlfriend to assuage the suspicions of the girlfriend's family that she was gay. The family needed to hear a voice behind this man, and we gave them one: I pretended to be a Syrian man living in the United States who met their daughter online and was calling on Skype to chat with the mother about future arrangements. The mother was so relieved to receive evidence that her daughter was not gay. The conversation was short, and I felt awkward about pretending to be someone I wasn't.

The conversation on the balcony turned to another problem my friend was facing: She was having problems coming out to her close friends and family members. I could see it in her eyes — she was struggling. And sitting on the balcony with her, I suddenly had a suspicion about Amina. If my friend, one of the bravest women I've ever met, can't be out of the closet in Damascus, and if I faced so many problems with my family since my teenage years due to my homosexuality, how could the "gay girl of Damascus" be so boldly out — not to mention critical of President Bashar al-Assad's regime — and gain acceptance and protection from her family?

My suspicions hardened when I went back to her blog to read the post, "My father, the hero," that had first garnered her widespread attention. Honestly, I didn't believe a word of it. Any person who lived in Syria knows that authorities coming to pick up a suspect in the "wee small hours" are not going to back off because of a speech, as Amina described the incident. They are not going to be shamed by anyone. Actually, after such a confrontation, arresting both Amina and her father would have been unavoidable.

It all felt so fictional, so unimaginable, so untrue. Upon Amina's fictional arrest, I shared my views with my lesbian friends, asking them on a secret Facebook group whether anyone knew of her or had any idea who she was. I came back empty-handed. I later shared my concerns with NPR journalist Andy Carvin, whom I'm happy to call a friend, and he started asking questions.

MacMaster's admission on June 12 that the blog was fictional has spurred fears within Syria's LGBT community of a potential backlash. The media has been targeting minorities who are seen as critical of the current regime, and the LGBT community is an easy target. They don't need to change people's opinion of homosexuals; it's already a negative one.

For my part, I started to cover my online tracks. For years, I've been outspoken on Twitter to bring the spotlight to the challenges faced by the LGBT community in the Middle East and Africa. I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I've been forced back into the closet online. Amina's arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.

I have lived in Egypt and Lebanon and visited other Arab countries. Each time I traveled across the Arab world, I could see that the Syrian LGBT community was the weakest link in the region. Socially, Syria is still stuck in the 1980s, shielding itself from any foreign influence. This practice has wounded the gay community: Boys and girls cannot have a choice about gender identity or sexual preference; they are simply not exposed to information about the global struggle for gay rights. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Syria are struggling on their own, with no safety net to fall into.

As one of the very few people out of the closet in Syria, I can tell you it is not an easy road. Traditions stand in your way; your masculinity is brought into question on every corner and from every person. Honor killings, while usually targeting women rumored to be promiscuous, can also target any man rumored to be gay.

The threat of violence is real. My father once pulled a gun and pointed it at my face during a fight about my homosexuality. Eight years later, my relationship with my family is still strained; I have been living on my own since I was 17, and I'm monitored by my father during any conversation with my siblings to make sure I don't spread the gayness around. The fictional Amina's fictional father, who was so supportive of her lesbianism, is something I long for. It is something I dream of.

In Syria, gay people are ghosts traveling the Internet, dating websites, and Damascus's famous Shalan Street, roaming for each other and looking for a release. We have never built the momentum necessary for an actual movement, which would allow us to fight for our right to exist out in the open. Before that battle, there's first the struggle — to accept oneself for who you are.

Although the general situation is undoubtedly gloomy, there are several specific instances of progress from which I can take hope. My lesbian friend with whom I talked on the balcony that rainy Damascus day just told her cousin that she is gay; the cousin, a common friend, accepted her. Another gay Syrian friend who lives in Canada came out of the closet to his family and is now finally confronting their expectations that he marry. These are the real gay people of Syria. These are the ones fighting the good fight — not a fake blogger misleading the world about the LGBT community in Syria.

Listen to the sounds of the real struggle from real people. But don't lose your trust with those trying to create a real movement in Syria's LGBT community — we need your help now more than ever. Don't let some dude pecking away at a keyboard in the dark in the comfort of his house in Scotland take your attention away from the real story.

Copyright 2011 Foreign Policy. To see more, visit http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.