The time has come to bid farewell to Dee Greene. I’ve been pondering Dee’s departure for some time. Ultimately it was a mixture of NPR, married men posing as lesbians, and a long-overdue chat with my dad that prompted me to put the pseudonym to rest.
Due to a serious medical situation in my family, this spring and summer I spent countless hours driving to and from a hospital. I listened to podcasts and audiobooks. I listened to music. I listened to the outward silence that accompanied my own thoughts. I also listened to a lot of National Public Radio.
It must have been on NPR when I first heard about Amina Arraf, aka Gay Girl in Damascus, who had been seemingly kidnapped off the street in Syria. It was also on NPR where I learned that Amina did not really exist, but was an elaborate persona created by Tom MacMaster. A day or two later, once again en route from the hospital, I heard about Bill Graber, who had been posing as Paula Brooks, a supposedly deaf lesbian mom who founded Lez Get Real, a website addressing global lesbian issues.
Is it useful to use some descriptive labels here? Though I am not particularly proud of it, given my oft-repeated frustration with labels, Tom and Bill’s labels mattered a lot to me. They are both white American men who are married to women. Both appear to be straight (although I know firsthand that being hetero-married does not necessarily a heterosexual make).
By now this is old news, but two months ago when the stories broke, I was riveted. Rather than review the details (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), I’ll direct you to this amusing video which sums up the married-American-men-posing-as-blogging-lesbians scenario. Sadly, the wigs employed in this video aren’t merkins, which I think would have been hysterical.
Watching my own reactions to these stories has been useful from a self-analysis standpoint. At first, I was indignant. Incensed, even. In a knee-jerk reaction, I put up a post expressing my anger and disclosing my real name.
Hands on hips, I ranted to anyone who would listen. As I sputtered, one friend tried to suppress a smile, telling me it sounded like those guys were nonconforming in their gender and sexuality expression. After clarifying that these were well-intentioned fictions rather than malicious spoofs on lesbians, another friend declared it to be “virtual cross-dressing.” By one gamer friend’s casual estimate, at least half of all the kick-ass female characters in World of Warcraft are likely played by men.
I argued that this was different than circumstances in which it’s expected that people are playing roles. I also see a distinction between representing fiction as fact and using a pseudonym or stage name for privacy or safety.
Tom and Bill attempted, as men, to represent queer women’s life experiences and perspectives, as though they knew personally what it was like to be a queer woman. Add to that Tom pretending to know what it’s like to be Syrian, especially a Syrian woman, and it stretches credulity. Similarly, Bill appropriated Deafness as a convenient tool to account for Paula Brooks being unable to talk on the phone.
While I don’t see men, or straight men, or straight white men, as a monolithic group, I do see Tom and Bill’s behavior as patronizing, and believe that their choices exhibited a shocking degree of blind privilege.
When the fire of my anger burned down, I found myself deeply curious about Tom and Bill’s underlying and yet-unspoken motives. As I continued to ponder and chew on the details, I began to feel compassion for what psychological states may have supported these men in creating these characters and stories. What motivated them, what sustained them? Easy answers probably don’t capture the fullness.
This would all be less messy in a world where women’s voices carried weight and authority. Even within the so-called Queer Media, blogs and media outlets run by women are sparse. Sure, there are a handful. Pam’s House Blend. Autostraddle. AfterEllen. And yes, hooray that the New York Times now has Jill Abramson at the helm. But nevertheless, women in positions of power in the media are a rarity, especially women in positions of power writing about the experience of being a woman.
To Tom and Bill, I would say: “Be who you are. If you are straight, then be a straight ally. Explore your own inner gendering and longings. Challenge strict notions of gender and sexuality. Write about it. Share it. Explore who are you are, or wish to be. But start from an honest place, and consider the actual and harmful effects of your long-term online deceptions.”
I would also encourage them to listen to recordings of the late folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips, especially the advice he relayed from Ammon Hennacy, who taught Phillips about privilege and being a pacifist:
“You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial society. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege: sexual privilege, racial privilege, economic privilege. You want to be a pacifist it’s not just giving up your hard angry thoughts, it’s not just giving up guns and knives and fists and plugs. You’re going to have to give up the weapons of privilege and go forth into the world completely disarmed. That’s hard.”
Ammon’s been gone twenty years and I’m still at it. But if there’s a worthy struggle in my life I suppose that’s the one.
In my writing here and at Dodson and Ross, it’s been my intention to tell my truth and to find room for all of me, my history, my experiences, my beliefs. Now I’m also finding room for my real name.
One of my reasons for writing under a pseudonym was out of fear that my parents would be shocked or disappointed by the content of my writing. Although I’m in my mid-thirties and haven’t lived with them for half my life, I still wanted to protect them and their religious sensibilities.
As I was deciding to drop Dee Greene, I had a conversation with my dad.
“I’m going to start writing under my real name,” I told him. “Some of what I write is about sex, and some of it is explicit. You may not want to read it. But I’d rather you heard about it from me first.”
“Awhile ago you said something in passing that made me wonder if you were writing under an assumed name,” he said. “I wondered why, but figured it wasn’t my business.”
“I think I was trying to protect you and Mom, and instead I was just keeping you from actually knowing me, who I really am.”
He looked at me kindly. “Marisa, you’re a grown woman. They are your words. It’s your work. Own it.”
That’s what I’m doing. I am Marisa Black, owning it.