Adam Polaski

The Unreliable World of Bill Graber from 'Lez Get Real'

Filed By Adam Polaski | June 16, 2011 7:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Bill Graber, Bridgette LaVictoire, Gay Girl in Damascus, Lez Get Real, Paula Brooks, The Washington Post

BloggingTyping.jpgThis 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.

LezGetRealSphere.jpegGraber 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:

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"because I had a coach"...

What an asshole. He didn't have a coach, he had someone he was (without her knowledge or consent) mimicking and pretending to be. Wonder how she feels about her "friend" now?

While I appreciate your series Adam, you've just lost me. In your attempt to be flat and impartial, you're ultimately minimizing the hurt and nastiness surrounding the three main characters involved in LGR (I'm leaving Melanie Nathan out of that) and making a lot of excuses for their behavior and total lack of judgment. If LGR were a black blog and Graber perpetrated his lie on a community like that I can only imagine how it would be recognized for the racism it was. It's amazing to me how people are willing to view this as almost a joke or an odd little episode which tells me how little many people value both women and lesbians. :(

I agree that Bill Graber has foisted a terrible lie onto his co-workers and readers of Lez Get Real and the other sites he worked for. But I disagree that I've made any excuses for the behavior of these people. I've reported on their actions and made sense of the behavior and events that led up to the revelation that Paula Brooks is not a lesbian woman.

My previous three pieces were purposefully impartial - so much was unknown about the story, and as it developed, I couldn't afford to make any assumptions that I fully understood the story. What I could do was report on what occurred - how each of the key players worked into the developments of LGR and the Paula Brooks hoax. This last piece specifically spells out that Bill Graber is not reliable and that everything he has said is suspect. I believe Bridgette LaVictoire and Linda Carbonell, and while they may have acted inappropriately toward their staff, I do not evaluate them to be liars. They - and Melanie Nathan, and Julie Phineas, and Renee Gannon, and LGR's readers - were pulled into this man's lies. I've concluded here that these lies, even after he's "come clean" as Bill, discredit him.

That's how I read your article too, Adam. Thanks for writing it and laying out some of the bizarre contradictions in Graber's stories.

I think the people still coming forward to talk about their interactions with Graber/Brooks will be important to expose more of those inconsistencies and lies.

What I don't think is being emphasized enough is his exploitation of a deaf identity which is exploiting that community as much as that of gay women. Moreover, he exploited and manipulated people with his story about his partner dying of cancer. Imagine some of the people reading the blog who had loved ones who died from cancer being wound around this story and reliving their own tragedies... so he could get attention, cred and sympathy.

But I also think not enough mention is made here of some of the truly crappy and questionable content Lez Get Real has perpetrated these past years. I've seen transphobic content glossed over and defended by repeatedly kicking people off the blog and "Paula" make bizarre political pronouncements about issues which "she" had no business even commenting on. Bridgette and Paula had a kind of sick symbiosis which bullied anyone who would honestly question their views (or identities). Bridgette continues her narcissistic defensiveness and secretiveness along with her mom, who is also not straightforward about her sexual orientation (until this happened). Bridgette had to be literally repeatedly goaded into even providing any proof that she wasn't a sockpuppet despite the sordid history of the site and the fact that she has no identity or contact with either the woman's community or the trans community outside the blog. That's not a background of honesty and openness on a lot of fronts and just because Bill/Paula is gone, that doesn't make me feel any better.

Gina, I am curious. Aren't you str8? I keep wondering why you go to places like Autostraddle and now Lez Get Real. It's really none of my business, and of course you have every right to go to any site you want, but what is it that draws you to such sites? I have no desire to go to sites that are all about het women stuff (understanding/attracting/pleasing men, and such), or to read any of the articles about romantic/sexual relations between men and women on feminist sites, so am curious what you see interests you on the gay girl sites? Sorry if this seems to be challenging you, I truly don't mean it that way. I would have asked this one to one, if I had some way of doing that.

Carol, ine little sideline I do is to post stories on the IFGE Facebook site. And it's fair to say it has about the broadest range of trans-related news and cultural stories anywhere. As part of doing that, time permitting, I check out a large number of blogs for trans-related content. While I don't insert myself into queer sites on non-trans related content (because, honestly, it's none of my business), if I do find something that's either a misstatement of fact, trans-erasure, that has 'cis tunnel-vision' or that I feel is insulting to trans people I will comment. I don't think there's anything wrong with non-queer people commenting on queer sites so long as they don't bring a sense of entitlement with them. I would, however, have a BIG problem with non-trans people controlling an ostensibly trans-related site or straight people controlling what is essentially queer content.

Btw, I also went to Lez Get Real because I know Melanie Nathan personally and have been following her wonderful writings on immigration, forcible rape and LGBTQ issues in Africa. And, yes, she writes about these subject in much more detail than they've been covered in Bilerico or other blogs.

Thanks, Gina! :)

I truly am not questioning or challenging you (or anyone else) going to blogs that are outside their own realm of experience (in fact, can be a good way of expanding your understanding of ppl, as I am sure you know). I was just curious about interested you about those sites.

And I have seen you post a few times on different sites, and you are always respectful and honest. :)

Now I need to find out what IFGE is, and look up some of Melanie Nathan's writing. :)

Uhhhhhh, I'm gonna go with "crazy man," yeah.

As for why this story is so offensive, and not just a weird quirky episode, Autostraddle has it exactly right:
http://www.autostraddle.com/lez-get-real-editor-paula-brooks-is-actually-a-man-93533/

I don't currently believe Bridget or the Lindas at LGR exist. I think they are more sock puppets for "Bill". If they do exist, and were just more innocent victims, they need to start entirely new blogs. The LGR blog, with its now-bitterly-ironic title, should be deleted. But if they are "Bill" they should not start new blogs because "Bill" should not be blogging. "BILL"! JUST STOP!

I had never heard of that site before the shit hit the fan. However, the thing that keeps puzzling me is what would interest anyone in a site called 'Lez' Get Real? The funny thing is the massive irony of that name now, lol.

I guess it sucks that ppl got hurt, but really, the whole thing sounds like it was a total shitstorm from start to finish? How do ppl put up with such sites for long enough to get emotionally involved?

Maybe I should go see what in the world they talk about that could be so engaging.

It was a terrible pun of a title and it was always a little embarrassing to link to it but, because of Melanie Nathan's excellent work, they had the best info on some international stories such as the Ugandan lesbian who was in danger of being deported from the UK.

Yeah, there were actually some things there that were unique. No one else covered the "corrective rape" issue in South Africa like Melanie

Really? I saw quite a lot of coverage here on the gays in Uganda issue, and saw a lot of coverage of the lesbian in England and Uganda on various feminist and progressive sites. Of course, I didn't see any of Melanie's articles, so perhaps she did it even better.

One of my favorite experiences in this life happened back in the turmoil of the civil rights marches. I made the mistake of telling a black man "I understand". He got angry. He went belligerent. He looked right in my eyes and said "don't give me that shit". He said "you may sympathize and you may even empathize but don't give me that cr*p that you understand because you did not grow up as a black in America." I will never forget his anger. I will never forget that truth. His words changed me more than anything else I have ever encountered. Actually that is not correct. His reaction straight from the gut of what he had lived through changed me.

Fast forward to Bill's hoax. He is an idiot. Just as I was when I looked at my friend and said "I understand".

Deena, I feel you give far too little credit to yourself, and far too much to the sleazy bastard who ran Lez Get Real. You were naive, and deeply and sincerely wanting to help. You were not deceiving anyone, such as by writing some little newspaper in which you pretended to be a black person.

The guy who ran Lez Get Real, on the other hand, set out to deceive ppl and worked hard to maintain that deception. Humongous difference, at least to me. :)

I really appreciate your careful reporting of the apparent facts on the ground, Adam.

I've had experiences with close friends/family who misrepresented themselves significantly for long periods of time. That doesn't make me an expert, but I'm comfortable relating my instincts here.

While Graber may be sincere about his attempts to now be open and honest, and I appreciate that apparent commitment, my experience leaves me doubting that he's got the capacity to do so at this point. And, I can't imagine him getting to the point of being healthy enough to do so apart from a long period away from unaccountable online activity combined with hard-hitting therapy.

I'm hearing too much irrationality in his words, from what you've described here and previously. He wasn't being anonymous, he was committing fraud. He's been locked up in a desperate cycle of lies for so long, and so deeply, that the healthy response on my part is deep, prolonged, skepticism about the sincerity of anything he says now. His back-and-forth thoughts about creating a credible voice for himself, or becoming trusted in the communities he's defrauded, any time in the near future, suggest that he's not taking the significance of his fraud seriously.

An anecdote from my own life feels relevant: When my partner Brian and I connected in mid-1995, we both fell hard and instantly for each other. I noticed that he didn't drink; several weeks into the relationship he told me for the first time that it was because of alcoholism, while downplaying its severity. Four months into the relationship, after a weekend-long binge, he started opening up gradually about his decade-plus-long binge patterns, car crashes, interventions, and relationship impacts.

There was clearly some shame for him to work through in revealing stuff from the past, so it doesn't surprise me that it took a lot of time and trust to open up.

One of the hard things for him, as he described the past, was knowing that he'd let his prior partner down and caused a lot of stress, at the same time the partner was dying with AIDS. It was a small comfort, though, that he was there supporting the partner's family at the end.

Brian and I broke up in mid-1997, largely due to his alcoholism not responding to any treatment, but a friendship emerged gradually. When he died of the alcoholism in 2002, I was there with his family and gave the eulogy. Only then did I learn that Brian's account of supporting his partner's family was not true: He drove 100 miles to arrive at the partner's bedside shortly after he died, but was falling-down drunk.

I don't blame Brian, or think of him as a bad person, for needing to believe he had been a support to his partner's family, or for needing me to believe it. It's part of the human condition that we struggle with accepting our darker moments, especially if it feels like there have been a lot of them. We can end up creating some of our own stories and powerful rationalizations to support them. We can come to believe that lying to the people we care about is balanced out by some greater good.

I don't believe there is a greater good from long-term deceit and dishonesty. Fraud poisons every relationship it touches.

And, I would argue that Bill Graber hasn't even begun to grasp the harm that he's done. Like Brian relating to me in the mid-1990s, it's going to take a long, long, time for Graber to begin grasping the depth of the lies, the impact on others, and start interacting honestly (if he ever does).

Finally, my experience tells me to expect Graber to continue to be desperate for attention, clamoring for approval and forgiveness, cozying up to people with dramatic descriptions of having reformed himself. Having seen (and been hurt by) such behaviors before, I don't trust them. No matter how cleverly cloaked with humility and apologies, it's not reasonable to believe the person is capable of humility or a sincere apology.

I wish Graber peace and healing. I'll be skeptical that he's found it unless he goes quiet for 6 months or a year, gets a lot of professional help, and reemerges humbly and slowly.

From looking at Queen of the Surf Pirates earlier this week I doubt that Graber lived in Outer Banks. The details were all taken from weather reports or other people's reviews of local businesses.

Also, some of the commenters on my blog noticed that Bill Graber and the female Paula Brooks who lives at his address have convictions in Fairborn, Ohio, for domestic violence, assault, stalking, and DUI. I hadn't realized that or thought to look in municipal or state records for traces of criminal behavior -- but there they are. http://www.fairbornmunicipalcourt.us/search.php and search "Graber".

Adam,

I for one would like to hear the details of how you confirmed the identity of Bridgette and Linda? Were you physically at their home? Did you use Skype?

There are details in your story, such as the constant ringing of their phones, that I for one would like to have clarified as to if that information was witnessed by you or relayed to you.

The details will either ease the minds of those questioning the identity of Bridgette and Linda or confirm that there is more to the story when it comes to the two of them. Not an accusation, just a question. A valid question at this point.

I know it is a complicated story, with a number of twists and turns, but I feel responsible reporting at this point needs to be the number one thing for anyone writing a word about it. There are many of us, who would like to know those confirming the details of a story are doing so prior to publishing it.

I have had a few people contact me with additional information about Mr. Graber and before I discuss the information, I request a Skype chat with photo identifications being shown in both directions. It eliminates the confusion and establishes at least a little trust that you are indeed talking to the person they claim to be.

What efforts have been made to find "Bessie and Michelle" to confirm even a small portion of his story?

Thanks,
CJ

CJ,

I couldn't find anything online mentioning a "Bessie and Michelle" online in online obituaries or newspaper articles. But this, I feel, is further evidence of the almost entirely unreliable nature of Graber's story.

I noted in my third article that I used Skype during my conversation with Bridgette and Linda. They were together in the same room, on the same screen. Our conversation began, all three of us spoke for several minutes , then the phone rang and Bridgette answered it. She said it was the Canadian Broadcasting Company to do a story. While Bridgette was on the phone, I spoke solely with Linda. Bridgette came back, the phone rang one more time, Bridgette took the call, and I spoke more with Linda. Then Bridgette came back into the room, we talked all together for 2-3 minutes, and then Linda left the room and I spoke only with Bridgette.

Adam,

Thanks for the follow up answer, but I have one more question and I think the controversy about Bridgette and Linda can be put to rest.

Did they both show you any proof of identification using the cameras during the Skype interview? Did you ask them for proof of ID other than through the Skype and if so how was that proof provided?

I won't apologize for being skeptical, because I personally know some of the people Mr. Graber hurt. I am not going to apologize for not trusting anyone associated with him unless and until there is physical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt they are telling the truth.

I have gotten a few comments from people saying they agree with my stance on this, and again, I think the more information you provide about your interviews, fact checking and verification the quicker people will feel more confident that the reporting is fair, balanced and most importantly accurate.

I appreciate your efforts with the story and look forward to reading more.

CJ Ward

Bridgette showed me her ID card for Goddard College, and it did include her name Bridgette LaVictoire.

I've emailed Linda to request further identification.

Adam,

Thanks for clarifying. The information you just gave cleared up another question from one of my readers.

I think this information is important for the readers to see.

I think I may send Mr. Graber a web camera so he can stop making excuses and provide an interview to someone face to face.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

CJ Ward

Gina wrote: Bridgette and Paula had a kind of sick symbiosis which bullied anyone who would honestly question their views (or identities).

Agreed! I found many of the so-called 'news' stories bylined by Ms. LaVictoire to be exceedingly slanted. And any comments that dared to offer another perspective were met with nasty personal vitriol. If they're attempting to be a news site then how about some form of professionalism. But perhaps that's asking too much from LezGetReal.

And as for the Paula persona, well, I think the guy is simply a pathological liar.

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