Cyber Drag

11.4.2011

By Porochista Khakpour

The allure of switching gender and sexuality online.

I. 2011: The year of boys who like girls who play girls who like girls. Except in this case, the girls were influential lesbian bloggers and the boys were old straight men. It seemed like an unprecedented scandal when the veil was lifted from the identity of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blogger -- supposedly an imperiled young Syrian lesbian by the name of Amina Abdullah Araf al Omari -- really a 40-year-old married male American student living in Edinburgh. On the tail of that shocker, the executive editor of LezGetReal.com, Paula Brooks, outed “herself” as a 58-year-old retired male construction worker from Ohio. LezGetReal.com was one of the sites “Amina” posted on and (now it gets real meta) she had even flirted at times with Brooks.

The outcry came in all shapes and sizes. Boredom? Thrills? These men had loftier claims, of course: namely concerns over human rights and homophobia. And of, course, the logic both used: People wouldn’t take me seriously if I had written as a straight man.

Though “sockpuppet” may have just entered the lexicon—the ingenious Internetese tag given to a fake online persona created with the purpose of deceiving a community -- the game is not new nor exclusive to overambitious lesbros.

Many of us have participated in a small-scale version of sockpuppetry, maybe even more than we’d care to admit. Who always uses their real name online? Who hasn’t found crass comfort in the murky anonymity the Internet affords? Who hasn’t touched down on the comments section of some controversial article and tinted their identity a deeper shade of credible? Last year, I was agonized by the insta-atmosphere of Islamophobia in the U.S. over the “Ground Zero mosque.” As a Middle Eastern woman, I found myself constantly battling it out in the comments sections of blogs and news sites to educate and defend. What I got in return: more Islamophobia, from playground jeers to bone-chilling slurs. One late night, I chose a white male username and did my Islam-defending from "his" side -- that conversation actually went further than “STFU, dune goon.”

The crime of Internet deception is deeper when dealing with the marginalized; when race and sexuality come into the equation, it's a manipulation of our moral and ethical considerations. One privileged group forsakes the platform of their privilege to push forward their supposedly progressive ideologies. But they instead sink in the shadows of the disenfranchised, falsely wearing their scars as badges of invisible solidarity, at best. At worst, it's just the same voyeurism, rooted in the same ugly ideas they claim to fight. And it can be downright traumatizing for the folks they’re puppeting; Amina and Paula’s outing was a funeral of sorts -- a needless one, but their loss, a loss of fictional characters who felt flesh and blood, who many connected to, was a genuine loss nonetheless. It’s a mockery of the necessity and survival that, for centuries, required queer folk play straight.

I found it amazing that I was so outraged by the summer's curious cases of fiction infringing on our "real lives." For one thing, I am a writer of fiction. But more importantly, I have been there, done that. And by "that," I mean the year I spent in cyberdrag.

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