A parallel deception which was uncovered in the course of the Gay Girl In Damascus fallout was the case of Paula Brooks. It was revealed last week that Paula, editor of the website LezGetReal.com – a laughably misleading title, in hindsight – was not a lesbian either, but in fact a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber, writes Nine.
Graber spoke of a commitment to LGBT rights and said that he assumed a lesbian identity because “I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.” This merits a closer look, given that while the Gay Girl In Damascus blog was directed at a general audience, rather than a lesbian-specific one, LezGetReal looked inwards towards the lesbian community.
As Julie Phineas, co-founder of the site juliephineas.com stated in an e-mail to Graber, after his unmasking, it wouldn’t have been a big drama to just contribute to the site under his own name. However, there were layers upon layers to his deceit, and he had created a whole story for his character Paula. He invented the excuse that she was deaf in order to explain why she was unavailable by phone. Instead, people could speak to her father – really himself – and he would interpret for her. Deafness was seemingly just a convenient characteristic that he could exploit in order to maintain his lie, rather than one which involved any kind of awareness of or solidarity with deaf communities.
After Graber’s outing, Renee Gannon, editor of Lesbiatopia.com, published a blog post describing how Paula Brooks introduced herself in 2007 with the story that she was a closeted teacher – and with the audacious claim that she was annoyed at a heterosexual friend for masquerading as a lesbian online. Although Paula certainly threw herself into her new role at Lesbiatopia, as her involvement with the site grew so did her aggressive manner. One example of this was when she e-mailed fellow contributors to complain that Gannon was on holiday with her girlfriend while others were campaigning in the streets against Proposition 8. Having assumed a fake identity in order to work for LGBT rights, Graber was now telling LGBT people that they were doing it wrong.
Gannon questions why Graber decided to “torment, abuse, threaten and badger these women (including myself) who [he] claimed to care so much about [...] It seems very cowardly if you ask me, to hide behind a computer and bully gay women.” To everyone’s surprise, Graber seems to have subsequently used the Paula Brooks account to leave comments on Gannon’s post, threatening legal action. One commenter offers, “He has always wanted militant lesbians, standing for a single cause… I think he might finally get his wish, because there are A LOT of pissed off lesbians right now!”
Meanwhile, Tom MacMaster must have been aware that disguising himself as Amina, the Gay Girl In Damascus, was not a case of moving horizontally from one identity to an equivalent one. “I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East,” he explained, “the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.” What he means to say here, I gather, was that his opinion on Middle East issues was distorted by opponents as soon as they were made aware that he was not himself from the region. However, his phrasing is particularly unfortunate given the quite unlikely implication that Arabs are assumed to hate America and Jews less often than westerners are.
Both men seem to have interpreted their privileged identities as a hurdle to getting the job done. Although their politics were progressive, they seem to have missed out on basic lessons about appropriation and transparency. This is perplexing, given that the LGBT community has many straight allies, and feminist men have a significant presence in the blogosphere. Furthermore, knowledgeable westerners are capable of making useful contributions to discussions of Middle Eastern politics without dominating the entire stage.
For MacMaster and Graber, it was apparently not good enough to present as allies; they saw their contributions as too essential to take merely a supporting role. They were sufficiently well-informed about the issues at hand to convince people that Amina and Paula were real, but also to convince themselves that their input as these characters was necessary in order to effect change. By inserting themselves into the middle of campaigns for the marginalised, they demonstrated a reluctance to hand over the mic to their supposed beneficiaries. Ultimately this is a story about ostensibly liberal people who were able to turn a critical eye on the rest of the world, but not on themselves.