On Sunday, June 12, the blogosphere was thrown into a tailspin as the "Gay Girl from Damascus," the blogger from Syria who had been supposedly kidnapped earlier in the week, stepped forward as Tom MacMaster, who was not gay, not a girl, and not from Damascus. He was a straight man posing as Amina Arraf, the young, lesbian revolutionary in Syria who posted her thoughts about standing up for what's right and challenging corrupt power. The LGBT community, as well as the broader population from around the globe, expressed various levels of outrage, puzzlement, and concern for any damage MacMaster might have caused with his hoax, for which he apologized at length.
One website that expressed particular disdain for MacMaster was Lez Get Real, a lesbian website with a focus on international news that cross-posted blog entries from "Amina" and provided a platform for her voice. On Sunday Lez Get Real released a scathing statement, signed by managing editor Linda S. Carbonell, addressed to MacMaster:
We were a voice for the people of the Middle East and you have nullified our voice. Worse, [the site that unveiled MacMaster's hoax] is accusing us of not existing. They accused our executive editor of being an avatar, called into question her qualifications and entire life experiences. ...
You have the unmitigated arrogance to think you can issue an apology to YOUR readers and not to us. You have put us through a week of hell - calling in favors to rescue someone who doesn't exist and losing us the support of people who were working with us for American rights. You have damaged your own cause, with people all over the world fighting over which fanatics you represent. What you did was stupid, irresponsible, and unworthy of the people you claim to care about.
With their statement, the Lez Get Real staff threw a stone. And, in a fascinating turn of events, it shattered their glass house.
Yesterday, The Washington Post published a confession from one of the supposed founders of Lez Get Real, Paula Brooks. Brooks, the newspaper reported, is a pseudonym, and the face behind the name is Bill Graber, a married, 58-year-old straight man from Ohio.
The Paula Brooks Internet identity has been continually crafted for almost six years, when the name was connected with posts from Paula the Surf Mom on a blog based in the Outer Banks. The persona is most famous for her work on Lez Get Real, which she founded in September 2008 with fellow writer and gay rights activist Julie Phineas. "Brooks" was deaf, and she communicated almost exclusively online, via email or chat. When she received phone calls, she communicated through a translator - usually her father, Bill Brooks in Washington, D.C.. Yesterday, Bill Graber confessed that Bill Brooks and Paula Brooks were the same person: him.
Yesterday, Graber said that he faked his identity in order to be taken seriously within the world of lesbian media. He also announced that he would step down from the website and allow two successors - Bridgette LaVictoire and Linda Carbonell - take the reins of Lez Get Real.
Bridgette is a transgender woman who has written extensively about her transition on Lez Get Real and other LGBT media. Her existence, along with that of her mother, Linda Carbonell, a pseudonym for Linda LaVictoire, has been confirmed in a Skype conversation with The Bilerico Project.
The Bilerico Project spoke with Brooks' former co-workers, Melanie Nathan and Julie Phineas, to get a fuller picture of Paula Brooks and to examine what is and is not real about Lez Get Real. Phineas' portion of the story is below. Nathan's full story will follow in a subsequent post.
Lesbiatopia and the Early Lez Get Real Days
Paula Brooks has been an online personality since at least November of 2005, when she wrote on a blog as the "Queen of the Surf Pirates" from what she said was the Outer Banks, N.C. In June of 2007, Renee Gannon, founder of a blog called Lesbiatopia, says she received an eager letter from Brooks that requested the opportunity to write as a contributor to Gannon's site. Gannon agreed, and the two began working together on Lesbiatopia.
Brooks went out of her way to recruit more writers to Lesbiatopia. One of these writers was Julie Phineas, who managed a blog at lesbianmommy.com. Brooks complimented Phineas' work, explained the opportunity to write for Lesbiatopia, and Phineas came on board. Speaking with The Bilerico Project via telephone and Skype from California, Phineas said that Brooks and Gannon quickly experienced creative and managerial differences - Gannon's report casts Brooks as a woman who overstepped her boundaries, reaching out to contributors and becoming defensive and overly critical of the blog's operations.
In September 2008, Brooks proposed to Phineas that the two of them break away from Lesbiatopia and begin their own blog. Brooks would serve as the primary writer and Phineas, who specialized in monetizing websites for clients, was responsible for developing the site.
"She wanted the site to be like The Huffington Post," Phineas said. "We had writers from the HRC, Top Chef Lisa was going to write for us, Melanie Nathan came aboard. I put my all in that site, and I'm really responsible for how far it's gone - we're heavily syndicated."
Phineas ended her working relationship with Brooks during the summer of 2009 over similar creative differences that Brooks experienced with Gannon.
"Her direction of the site and what my writers expected and what I expected weren't matching up, so I stepped away and let her resume control," Phineas said. "I walked away."
During her time with Lez Get Real, Phineas said that she worked with and became close friends with Bridgette LaVictoire, which Phineas confirmed was a penname. Phineas had not encountered anyone who claimed to be Bridgette's mother, although she did recall an article that Bridgette had published on Lez Get Real. The article series, which was supposedly written by Bridgette's mother, appears cached here, although it does not feature a name.
Filling in the Brooks "History"
Phineas was stunned to hear this morning reports that her Lez Get Real co-founder was a heterosexual man. While Phineas had never met Brooks in person, the two corresponded via chat and email every day from Fall of 2008 through 2009. When Phineas would call using the phone, she said she communicated with Brooks through an interpreter, usually Brooks' father, Bill. Phineas also said that she spoke at one point with a female interpreter and a much younger male interpreter.
The younger male interpreter, Phineas remembers, was supposedly a staffer at NBC, where Brooks worked her day job. Phineas estimated that in late 2008 Brooks moved from the Outer Banks to Washington, D.C., where she began work for The Keith Olbermann Show around March. Brooks reportedly moved several times in the next year between DC and New York City, where she worked on The Rachel Maddow Show.
These positions apparently benefitted Lez Get Real. Phineas said that Brooks was able to pass off stories that the blog and some other LGBT media were covering to The Rachel Maddow Show, bringing mainstream exposure to the stories.
Phineas said that Brooks' family relationships were also uniquely beneficial to the blog. "She had press passes because her father supposedly worked in the White House," Phineas said. "She had a lot of contact information." Phineas recalled specifically the high level of access Brooks had to the January 2009 inauguration, which Brooks was able to cover with a surprisingly quick turnover rate.
Brooks' "Wife" Debbie
Brooks' move from the Outer Banks to D.C., Phineas said, was stimulated by Brooks' supposed wife's cancer-related death. Phineas believed that Brooks was married to a woman named Debbie, and the couple had twin children.
Debbie supposedly passed away in December of 2008 from breast cancer. Phineas and the Lez Get Real staff spent time with the website to raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund in honor of Brooks' wife.
The first week of December, Julie spoke with Bill, who she believed to be Brooks' father, about how Paula was coping with her wife's passing. On December 9, Phineas received this letter, which features the subject line "Thank you for being Paula's friend":
Thank you very much for taking the time to speaking [sic] with me.
This is a very difficult time for Paula and our family is very grateful for the support you have shown Paula in this very trying time.
However as we discussed on the phone, my daughter is in all honesty just about this side of nuts at the moment and when she came into the room going off about her web site it looked to me she was about to cross the line to full blown nuts.
I felt it my job as her dad to step in. I hope it did not come across on the phone as being kind of some hard ass to you. Everything I was saying was being directed to her and not you.
Debbie's passing has hit us all very hard here, she was a very special lady. She will be missed by everyone who knew her.
Paula will be particularly hard hit I am sure, because their relationship was such a very unique one.
As you know, Paula is nothing if not high strung and Debbie was many times the person who moderated Paula's responses to certain situations. I know I will miss Debbie steady hand in my daughter's life, because Debbie was very good for Paula.
We will get her settled down and get her through all of this, it will just take time.
In the meantime thank you very much for hearing out my concerns pertaining [to] Paula and her involvement in the website for the time being.
I have had a good talk with her and I believe she understands she needs to deal with Debbie's loss more constructively then she is at the moment. She has two little girls who need her and Paula needs to make sure she healthy enough to be there for them.
Again, thank you for all your help and support in this trying time for Paula and her family. You sounded on the phone like you are the kind of freind [sic] my little girl needs in her life at the moment, I am glad you are in her life.
With Very Warm Regards,
William S. Brooks
You Think You Know Someone...
After Phineas resigned from Lez Get Real in summer of 2009, she interacted with Brooks occasionally. Several times after her resignation, she posted articles to Lez Get Real.
"Even though I wasn't producing or bringing writers in, I still am a writer," she said of her continued involvement with the website. "I had just written a book, and I had posted articles about my book on Lez Get Real, and I had posted articles about other lesbian websites I had started."
In January 2010, Phineas said, Brooks banned her co-founder from posting. Phineas mentioned that in her time with Lez Get Real, she earned very little money, actually incurring more expenses than profits, as the domain and server costs fell on her.
Phineas said that she had no suspicions at all that Brooks was anyone other than who she purported herself to be. And despite the missteps she experienced with Brooks, she looks back on Lez Get Real fondly.
"I've seen how much progress the site has caused," she said. "I know how much change that that site has made. She really seemed like a real person."
"I feel really taken," Phineas sighed. "I am blown away."
Read the entire "Lez Get Real" story at The Bilerico Project:
UPDATE: The original version of this piece has been updated to reflect new information. Through a Skype interview, The Bilerico Project confirmed the identities of Bridgette LaVictoire and Linda Carbonell. The daughter and mother, respectively, had previously been listed as unconfirmed. The name "Bridget McBride" was mistakenly credited as LaVictoire's real name.