For two and a half years, LGBT activist and blogger Melanie Nathan had been working with Paula Brooks as an editor of Lez Get Real. But less than three weeks ago, Nathan resigned from her position at the website. She was livid at the publication's direction and Brooks' refusal to consider Nathan's suspicions that Amina Araff, the "Gay Girl in Damascus" who had been blogging at Lez Get Real since February, was a fraud.
Nathan couldn't have chosen a better time to jump ship.
Last week, Amina Araff was "kidnapped" in Syria - and the only source was Amina's "cousin," who rattled off a post on Amina's blog rallying the world for help. The story rapidly unraveled, and in the end, only Tom MacMaster, a married, heterosexual man living in Edinburgh, Scotland, remained. An angry blogosphere has since pounced on MacMaster, asserting that he has dramatically altered perspectives, endangered innocent lives, and presented a challenge to our conception of online identity.
Then yesterday, in the process of uncovering the truth about Amina, reporters discerned a second case of falsified identity - Paula Brooks, the lesbian mother of two who co-founded Lez Get Real, a popular lesbian news website focusing on international issues, was also a man. Read more about the controversy, including exclusive information from Lez Get Real co-founder Julie Phineas, here.
Melanie Nathan, who currently lives in San Francisco, spoke with The Bilerico Project via Skype on Monday night about how she was duped, what questions remain, and if there's a future for Lez Get Real.
From Activist to Blogger
Melanie Nathan did not intend to become a full-time blogger. But in the spring of 2009, she became intimately involved in the case of Shirley Tan, a lesbian woman from the Philippines trying to earn her green card so she could stay in the United States with her partner and children. Tan became a poster child for bi-national couples, and Nathan played an important role in persuading Senator Dianne Feinstein to introduce a bill on Tan's behalf.
Nathan decided to post on her own personal blog in order to chronicle her efforts in the Shirley Tan case. She received a call shortly after she posted on the blog asking whether she was interested in cross-posting her content at a different website, Lez Get Real.
Nathan was soon virtually introduced to Paula Brooks, one of the founders of the website. They communicated frequently via email or instant message.
"I did not start with any major ambition," Nathan said, with a distinct accent that signals her South African roots. "But then I realized that Lez Get Real could feasibly be a good platform to showcase my activism."
The website provided Nathan with a spotlight to shine on the problem of corrective rape - where lesbians are raped to "cure" them of their homosexuality - in South Africa. Her coverage on Lez Get Real sparked a Change.org petition to end corrective rape.
Nathan found that her work for the blog went hand-in-hand with her human rights advocacy work, and she quickly became consumed with researching, reporting, and writing. As her level of interest in the site increased, so too did her online interactions with Brooks. Some of these exchanges occurred via telephone, and Brooks, who said she was deaf, needed to communicate through an interpreter - her father, Bill Brooks. Although Nathan said she suggested Skype, the co-workers never used it.
Taking a Leadership Role
Throughout 2010, Nathan and a woman named Bridgette LaVictoire, who had been working with Brooks and writing for Lez Get Real when Nathan came aboard in April, took on more of the site duties. While Brooks had written extensively in 2009, by the next year LaVictoire was the one leading the news cycle. During this time, the number of site visitors soared. In its first year, Nathan said, Lez Get Real attracted 300,000 unique visitors. In 2009, that grew to 800,000, and in 2010, the audience was at 1.8 million unique visitors.
"I was really hooked on this, and I really worked my ass off," Nathan said. She began pairing even more writing work with even more activism, and she gave up her job of mediating divorce and custody cases in order to focus on the site nearly full time. In March 2010, Nathan took on more administrative duties for the publication. She said she paid the site's operating expenses, which ranged from $150 to $220 a month, beginning in March of 2010 (and lasting until June 2011), and when she wasn't writing or researching, she was promoting Lez Get Real.
In November 2010, Linda Carbonell, Bridgette's mother, came on board and began writing regularly.
According to Nathan, a post from Carbonell was what instigated the first appearance from 'Amina' on Lez Get Real. In response to a post from Carbonell, Amina left a comment criticizing the story, prompting Brooks and Carbonell to reply. Nathan said that the site founder and relatively new addition took a liking to Amina and her strong communications skills, and before Nathan knew it, Amina was writing for Lez Get Real. The creation of Amina's separate blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, shortly followed.
In late February, as she was preparing for nearly a month-long trip in South Africa to continue her research and activism work surrounding corrective rape, Nathan was contacted by Daniel Littauer of Gay Middle East, an online publication. Littauer questioned the authenticity of Amina and told Nathan of his suspicions.
Nathan said that when she communicated Littauer's suspicions Carbonell and Brooks both dismissed them. Brooks, Nathan said, even went so far as to call Nathan a bigot, saying she was trying to discredit Amina because Melanie "hated Arabs."
During her time in South Africa, Nathan said that she grew increasingly displeased with the content of Lez Get Real, which included fewer articles with specific LGBT themes and more pieces, especially from Carbonell, that Nathan viewed as anti-Israel.
When Nathan came back from her trip, she felt as though she had been edged out of the decision-making process at the website. Her raised concerns about the authenticity of Amina were twice more rejected.
An Exchange of Letters
The combination of all of this was too much for Nathan to handle. Something that she had invested significant time and passion into, she explained, had been morphed into something to which she did not want to be attached. On May 27, she drafted a letter to her friends and supporters. It read, in part:
After two amazing years of advocacy and much visibility, I am pleased to announce my decision to retire my interest in LezGetReal. This was not a difficult decision for me, given the recent direction of my partners in the site, which I am unable to condone. It goes out of the original mission we agreed upon. For me the blog has always been intended as a platform for my advocacy and served my expression for much of my behind-the-scenes work. I will find a venue that supports my work where I do not have to compromise my ethics and values. ... Save for the 1,440-plus articles I have written in the past 2.3 years period, which will continue to reside on the LGR site, notwithstanding my personal copyright, I will no longer be supporting Lez Get Real and specifically disassociate from the site and those associated with it at this time.
Despite her resignation letter, Nathan continued to probe the Lez Get Real team about Amina. Paula Brooks then accused Nathan of passing off contact information for Brooks' 'father' to the media, an accusation that Nathan denied. In an email to Nathan on June 9, provided by Nathan, Brooks wrote:
Giving the Guardian my dads contact info was as low as you could sink.... and he is really pissed now
You will never be allow [sic] on LGR... no way no how... no bullshit...
I will hit the kill switch before that will ever happen
Now take your crazy ass and move along... everyone at LGR is sorry we ever meet [sic] you.
Carbonell wrote to Nathan, too, on June 10:
As the new managing editor of LezGetReal, I have issued an apolgy [sic] to our readers, explained our involvement with Amina and explained your attacks in the press. I have instructed Gen. Brooks that all further communication from the Guardian is to come to me. I have also sent out a request to our writers to block all e-mails from you.
Enough already. It's over. You have been severed from the site. You have no influence over what we do or what we write and we will not permit you to continue harassing Paula. I will not permit you to jeopardize Paula's career or her personal life with your unwarranted attacks. I don't give a flying fuck who you think you are or who you think your "sources" are. We are done here. Once this is out, I will be blocking you from my e-mail as well.
Revelation of False Identities
On June 12, the manhunt for Amina ended when MacMaster confessed the hoax, and on June 13, Brooks' own years-long hoax was also revealed.
On the evening of June 13, Nathan received an email from LaVictoire that said, "I did not decide to squeeze you out. There were no conspiracies. I did not know it was Bill until earlier today, and I've been crying off and on ever since. In fact, it wasn't until we were talking to the WaPo about how no one could find 'Paula' that it came out."
LaVictoire's email also shared a chat exchange between herself and "sammythesurfdog," which has long been one of Brooks' usernames. LaVictoire told Nathan that this was how she learned she had been deceived by Bill Graber:
2:47 PM sammythesurfdog: huh?
2:49 PM me: Elizabeth Flock of WaPo contacted us to ask us to verify you exist
me: saying she tried to verify you exist through other means, but did not find anything
2:50 PM she apparently was looking for Paula Brooks, said that you had given her your driver's license
2:52 PM sammythesurfdog: and?
me: we had to give her your real name and your father's real name, and my mother is busy contacting her editor to get her to back the hell off
2:53 PM sammythesurfdog: stop
me: she wouldn't listen to my mother or anyone else
2:54 PM is there anything else you need to tell me?
sammythesurfdog: i am not real
me: who the hell are you then?
2:55 PM do you want to come clean right now?
rip my heart out?
LaVictoire's Attempts to Regain Nathan's Friendship
LaVictoire seemed to attempt several times to communicate to Nathan her disappointment at how Brooks' true identity emerged. In the same June 13 email containing the chat, LaVictoire told Nathan:
The thing is, it was Bill who did you wrong, and he did it through us. Whatever this man did to you neither I nor my mother was part of. I don't know if you can trust me on that, but there it is. I feel as raped as you do. This man made me love 'Paula' - he told me he loved me. Right now, I need to try and repair the damage to my Self [sic].
On Facebook that evening, LaVictoire, writing from the Lez Get Real Facebook account, lamented in a comment chain, "As for Melanie, I am trying to undo the damage of that. I am trying to undo a lot of damage to myself too."
The bizarre story of "Paula Brooks," Bill Graber, and the future of Lez Get Real has developed throughout the day, as The Washington Post published a longer piece where Graber discusses the debacle. Tomorrow, The Bilerico Project will publish further about the various players in the increasingly complicated situation.
But Melanie Nathan, for one, said that she is moving on.
"I feel deeply betrayed," she reflected. "I thought that I had a friend in Paula. I thought I had a business partner in Paula. I was led to think that I was building an asset with Paula. I really believed that I was building something - I gave up any financial existence for myself, really hell-bent on this being the most incredible site ever."
Nathan's decision to devote several years almost exclusively to Lez Get Real have already seen a financial impact. She relocated on Monday night to a new apartment half the size of her previous one.
Despite the setbacks with Lez Get Real, Nathan said she will keep working.
"I will continue blogging. I will continue my activism for corrective rape in South Africa. I will never give up my activism, and now I've learned a little bit how to write. I don't even feel like I made a mistake, because I feel like it'd be disingenuous of me to say that I didn't get a lot out of Lez Get Real. I did, on so many levels. ... My passion for this particular site has diminished, but my passion as an advocate and to write will never go away." She said she will announce her next writing venture on Friday.
Further, she explained the importance of unearthing more about Bill Graber, his nearly six-year hoax, and other lingering questions about Lez Get Real.
"As long as Lez Get Real is up and being operated by anyone," she said. "The story is continuing."
Read the entire "Lez Get Real" story at The Bilerico Project:
(All e-mail correspondence - and image - provided by Melanie Nathan)