This week at The Bilerico Project, I have been documenting the back story, the rise, and the whirlwind fall of Paula Brooks, the lesbian woman who founded Lez Get Real, an online news blog with a focus on international lesbian issues. On Monday The Washington Post revealed that Brooks, who had been diligently crafting her Internet identity as a devoted gay blogger, was actually a married, heterosexual man. The newspaper reported that the man is Bill Graber, a 58-year-old who lives in Ohio with his wife.
But readers who have been following the story online - the few who haven't already abandoned the impossibly long narrative (which you can read here and here and here) - are continuing to doubt Graber's story. Graber, they explain, has not communicated to anyone using video, and the only picture available is the one he chose to submit to The Washington Post.
I spoke with Graber on the phone on Tuesday afternoon when Graber refused my request for a video interview. In an email, he typed: "I don't have skype. ... So you will have to call Bill Graber if you want to Talk to Bill Graber."
As we talked, much of his story seemed to make logical - although certainly not rational -sense. He used his wife's name to create an online lesbian persona with adopted twin children and a love for surfing and the Outer Banks. He started a blog in 2006 called "Queen of the Surf Pirates" where he wrote about the rather humdrum daily life of a lesbian with a dog and a partner. That turned into a writing gig at Lesbiatopia, a lesbian group blog started by Renee Gannon, and after a very bad falling-out with Gannon, Graber broke off to begin his own new site. He felt he wouldn't be taken seriously as someone who wrote about lesbian issues because he was a straight man, so the pseudonym helped him earn credibility.
But Bill Graber's pseudonym was more than just a name. It was an entire identity. Graber invented a complex history for Paula Brooks, one that involved a beloved, deceased pet named Sammy the Surf Dog; a series of fast-paced relocations to Washington, D.C. and New York City; and a hearing impairment that restricted Paula from speaking on the phone.
Graber elaborated on his commitment to provide quality reporting through Lez Get Real. He distanced himself from Tom MacMaster's Gay Girl in Damascus hoax, which Graber cross-posted on his website beginning in February 2011 but to which he now refers to as "fantastical bullshit." He asserted that he did not flirt with MacMaster's fictional online persona. He insisted that he maintained his blogs for the good of the LGBT community, saying, "I have seen you guys get shit on. And it's not right. And somebody's got to fight for you guys. Paula fought for you guys."
Graber's Post-Paula Future
But when I compared my conversation with Graber to conversations he had in the past two days with other reporters and people close to Lez Get Real, the less sense his story seemed to make. There are several important contradictions.
In The Washington Post's follow-up story, which essentially lists quotations from Graber, he explained that he hopes to be completely retired of work with Lez Get Real "in the month." He told me on Tuesday he would be shut out of the Lez Get Real system, that his Lez Get Real email address would be disabled later at 5:00 p.m. that day, and that he would no longer be blogging anywhere. In a conversation with Bil Browning several hours after our interview, Graber postulated ways to turn his newfound infamy into a future of greater blogging fame.
On Thursday, Graber used his Lez Get Real email account, the one he said would be defunct on Tuesday, to email his former coworker Renee Gannon, who founded Lesbiatopia, where Paula Brooks began writing for a mostly-lesbian audience.
A Completely Secret Identity?
Graber's military experience - his service in the U.S. Air Force - has not been confirmed.
Graber wavered about which other people in his life were aware of his false identity. "Nobody knew that I was posing as Paula. Not a writer on the staff, no one," he told me. His wife was also left in the dark. "She knew that I put a lot of time into online blogging," he explained. "She knew what a pain in the ass I am about gay issues and liberal issues. But she's a busy lady - she didn't take notice to what I was doing. She just knew I was doing it 12 hours a day. We respect privacy here."
He said something similar to The Washington Post, but again, Browning received a different story. At one point, Graber said that Bridgette LaVictoire, the successor to Lez Get Real, knew Paula Brooks was not real, but then Graber changed his story, affirming that LaVictoire did not. Graber also told Browning that Graber's wife did know of his Lez Get Real work and that several other people - including a "girl at the bar" who was going to impersonate Paula Brooks during a meeting with Browning during a trip to Indianapolis.
The Inspiration Behind Paula Brooks
His motivation for the Paula Brooks character was also a source of confusion. He told The Washington Post:
This couple is the perfect, cute, gay couple. These people have exactly figured it out. Anyone would wish to have what they have, not to be gay, but just to have the relationship they have. Have you ever seen the perfect couple? That's them. I had no point of reference other than them.
I watched them go through a near death experience, and more so because this is Ohio. It's a bad state for gays. They wouldn't acknowledge a partner in hospitals, even though the couple has been together for 20 years. That happened about the time that I started the Web site.
He told me that Paula was inspired by his friends Bessie and Michelle, a lesbian couple he had met in the Outer Banks. Michelle, sick with breast cancer, passed away, and in the weeks before her death, the couple endured discriminatory treatment by their health care and services provider. Several months later he approached Bessie about "borrowing" her tragic story, and she agreed. Graber said that Bessie did not ask where the "borrowed" story would appear and that Bessie was unaware of Graber's "Paula Brooks" identity.
Graber also mentioned in our conversation one woman in particular to whom he looked for about how to write with the appropriate voice. "I'm not a lesbian," he said. "But I have a very good friend who is - a very, very, very good friend who is. I didn't have a problem trying to sound like a lesbian because I had a coach."
And within a few minutes, he explained another version of Paula's inspiration, saying, "She was a composite I put together to try and promote peace and love with gay people in the Outer Banks."
A Highly Unreliable Source
Bill Graber was an expert at maintaining order in his fictional life. As Paula Brooks, he corresponded with dozens, if not hundreds, of people - journalists, information sources, and other lesbian bloggers - and kept the story straight throughout it all. It's uncanny that someone with such a talent for creating a fictional life and sticking to it for six years is now falling apart and running into important contradictions. The inconsistencies in Graber's story are so rampant that nearly everything he has said is suspect.
In our phone call, Graber expressed immense frustration at the fact that Paula Brooks had been uncovered as a fraud. "The problem is that with this anonymous blogging shit, you've got to go through so much trouble to protect people's identities," he said. "The problem now is that I'm the one with all this bullshit that I've written and looking like some kind of crazy man."
"Do I sound like a crazy man?," he said. "Or do I sound like somebody who really had a plan?"
Read the entire "Lez Get Real" story at The Bilerico Project: