The internet community is still reeling from the news that lesbian Syrian blogger “Gay Girl in Damascus,” Amina Arraf, who built a reputation on writing vivid accounts of revolt in Damascus, is actually a man.
After Gay Girl’s reported detention fueled internet and media attention, this identity was revealed to be an elaborate hoax. Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man living in Scotland has apologized for inventing, and posing as, the blogger.
It’s amazing how the internet can seem so vast and impersonal, and yet has an ability to pull people together in the weirdest possible ways.
Today I almost choked on my very lesbian jasmine green tea when I found a Twitter link to a Washington Post report that the editor of lesbian news website LezGetReal, who encouraged Gay Girl and republished her blog entries, is also a man, Bill Graber, using the name “Paula Brooks” as an online persona. Graber confirmed his identity to The Associated Press, saying “LezGetReal was not meant to be deceitful or con anyone.”
Although they forged a supportive blogging relationship, apparently neither MacMaster nor Graber knew that the other was actually a man. (I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at their first meetup!)
The thing is this – I’ve had plenty of contact with Paula Brooks, as have many lesbian bloggers, writers, and others on Facebook, Twitter, etc. While I was looking at this story about the Syrian blogger hoax as a far-off anomaly, now I feel the deception much more personally.
(Note: Here, I’m going to stop using all the quote marks… this is getting crazy. Just remember that when I say “Paula Brooks,” I actually mean “Bill Graber,” and when I reference him as “her,” I actually mean “him”. Okay?)
In late 2007, I had contact with Paula and wrote a few posts for Lesbiatopia, a website she co-founded with Renee Gannon, who remains the editor and publisher of Lesbiatopia. The two had a parting of ways in 2008 after Gannon told Brooks she didn’t want to work in partnership anymore. The break-up wasn’t amicable:
“She had become controlling and started to see herself as the owner of the site, even though it was my personal project,” Gannon explained. “She started to take over the design and her articles became more angry and negative, which just wasn’t my style. I wasn’t about portraying lesbians as angry women, I don’t feel like you can gain results by writing angry rants. When I tried to end the working relationship, Paula didn’t take the news well. She almost went into a stalker-ish mode, and even tried to lock me out of my own site. Luckily, with the help of friends and the other writers, I was able to get control back but she continued to log on and post angry comments and send me numerous angry emails over and over.”
As a result of the fall-out, Brooks started LezGetReal. The rift was detailed on the blog Lesbian Mommy in 2008.
Gannon met Brooks online the same way I did. Brooks followed my blog and initiated contact, as she did with Gannon.
In 2007, Gannon’s Lesbiatopia was new. “She reached out to me and asked if I wanted to have a contributor about political stuff. I thought about it and said ‘sure’. I thought having multiple opinions on the site would be great for the readers. ”
In my case, Brooks contacted me and asked if I would be interested in writing some non-fiction for Lesbiatopia. At that time, GeekPornGirl was strictly a lesbian fiction site. (I’m still writing short stories as well, and they’re here.)
The persona that Brooks presented to Gannon is the same she presented to me. She was a partnered woman with twins, deaf, and an avid surfer. Since I live near the coast in Northern California, we touched on surf culture in our emails. Gannon is also a surfer. “Paula had a surfing site and used to tell me about her surf adventures, and being an avid surfer myself, I felt like we had a common bond,” she said.
Brooks’ purported deafness was an excuse not to speak to anyone on the phone, therefore Gannon, myself, and others, only knew her online.
The thing is this: The internet allows us to build bonds where none exist. For gays, lesbians, and other groups of people outside of the mainstream, the internet can provide an important sense of connection. I know it did for me when I was first coming out and found an online support group for lesbians coming out later in life. (I was in my 30s).
Graber’s identity was revealed as bloggers and journalists looked for clues to the real identity of “Gay Girl in Damascus”. In today’s Washington Post story, Graber said he started the site (LezGetReal) to write about gay issues after seeing the mistreatment of close friends who were a lesbian couple. He said the site was “done with the best of intentions.” He also said he used the site to argue in favor of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal because he is a former Air Force pilot.
So why did both men choose to pose as lesbians? Was it because lesbians represent their fantasy women? (That old story again…) Or was it because they intuited that lesbians can be disenfranchised and are therefore likely to make trusting internet connections? We’ll never really know. Graber offered this explanation to The Post: “I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man,” he said.
Gannon said her reaction to today’s news is one of shock and sadness. “I just don’t understand how a man could possibly pose as a lesbian and go through such lengths to convince everyone that he is a lesbian, with a life … and twin daughters and the whole nine yards.”
She said the hoax makes her question the validity of people online and leaves her wondering if they are who they say they are.
Paula Brooks’ Facebook page was deleted this afternoon, although posts continued to appear on Twitter in her name. The LezGetReal site was slow to respond, as it was undoubtedly bombarded with hits from people all over the world following this ersatz lesbian drama.
“I guess there is a lesson to be learned here, that you can’t really trust anyone and the internet can be a powerfully dangerous place,” Gannon said.
(You can read Renee Gannon’s post about working with Paula here.)