For the past two days, the telephones in the Rutland, Vermont home of Bridgette LaVictoire (right) and Linda Carbonell, have been ringing off the hook. Since news broke that Paula Brooks, the lesbian founder and editor of Lez Get Real, the blog for which the women write, is actually a straight, married man named Bill Graber, they have been fielding calls from reporters, fellow contributors, and Graber himself.
It's not an enviable position.
LaVictoire and Carbonell have seen their own identities challenged. They have been questioned about their role in the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax. And they have agreed to step in as the managers of Lez Get Real, all while trying to grapple with their own conceptions of what was and was not real.
Despite the lies of Bill Graber, LaVictoire and Carbonell are real. LaVictoire is a 36-year-old, lesbian transgender woman and full-time graduate student at Goddard College. She had the first of her gender change surgeries in August, and soon, she will amend her birth certificate to reflect her true gender. Carbonell is LaVictoire's 62-year-old, heterosexual mother who works part-time providing services for older residents in an apartment building.
In a Skype interview with The Bilerico Project, the mother-daughter duo addressed concerns about the new direction of Lez Get Real, distinguished this controversy from the "Gay Girl in Damascus" debacle, and spoke about their relationships with Bill Graber and Paula Brooks. (Read previous pieces of the story from Bilerico here and here).
Coming Aboard Lez Get Real
Bridgette LaVictoire first encountered Paula Brooks on Lesbiatopia, a blog devoted to lesbian-focused news analysis. LaVictoire, posting under the username "SEI," would comment on articles and append her own thoughts to other writers' posts. Brooks eventually asked LaVictoire to get in touch about becoming a writer on Lesbiatopia, an exchange that occurred on Sept. 5, 2008 (See below).
She published on Lesbiatopia for the first time the next day, and when Brooks broke away to start Lez Get Real later that month, LaVictoire followed.
The two worked together closely, speaking online often and, when telephone was necessary, via an interpreter, as Brooks was 'deaf.'
In November 2010, Carbonell, who had previously guest-posted under LaVictoire's account about being the mother of a trans woman, began writing for the site to bring in an older perspective.
That same month, Brooks arranged an in-person meeting with Carbonell and LaVictoire in Washington, D.C. Brooks canceled at the last minute, as she had in two previously proposed meetings with Lez Get Real editor Melanie Nathan. It is unclear why Brooks would arrange meetings without any intention of attending.
Around that time, Brooks announced exciting personal news to her staff that would restrict her from continuing with the full-time blog duties.
"The Paula persona was 'engaged to be married,'" Carbonell explained. "The fiancé had a new job offer in Chicago, Paula had two daughters, they had just adopted a son, and she wanted to hand over the site."
LaVictoire explained that in early 2011, the plan was for her and Melanie Nathan to take over. When Nathan expressed discontent with the site and resigned in late May, however, plans changed, and LaVictoire and Carbonell arranged to begin managing Lez Get Real in August.
"The reality is that Bill was trying to exit quietly," Carbonell said. "And if it had happened, we would have just been able to continue what we do. But then Tom MacMaster blew up in our face."
Distinct from Damascus
Carbonell said it's unfair to treat the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax and the Lez Get Real gender-bending as equally damaging lies. She labeled Graber's false identity as little more than a fictional author. And while there's far more to Graber's lies than simply his gender or family background - after all, he developed an intricate, complex web of falsehoods for his intimate, professional relationships - his journalistic reporting on Lez Get Real has not been accused of communicating false information about the LGBT community.
"I think that the damage he did was personal to those of us involved with him," Carbonell said. "In the beginning on the LGR site he told a few stories about this character Paula to connect with people, to make them see what life was like for a lesbian, single mother. But he wasn't hurting anyone. And he didn't do anything that fit to a bigger realm of the world."
She does, however, find significant, long-term fault with MacMaster's actions.
"The Amina persona set off incredible damage to the cause of citizen journalism in the Middle East," she said. "And the only access the world has to what is going on in these countries is the person willing to pick their cell phone up in the air and go, 'See? They're killing us.' And Tom MacMaster has damaged the credibility of all of those people, the only ones who can tell us what's going on inside Syria."
"What Tom has done hurts 8 million people," Carbonell said. "What Bill did hurts half a dozen. That's an enormous difference."
An Intimate Relationship
To say that Bill Brooks' lies were not as damaging as Tom MacMasters' is not to say that Brooks did nothing wrong. His twisted, intricate backstory was littered with confusing lies that seem extraneous to a successful cover-up. Some of those include Paula's supposed work with The Rachel Maddow Show and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, attendance at the presidential inaugural ball, and the drawn-out, authentic-seeming passing of her 'wife' in 2008. "It's hard to choose the most egregious lies when there are so many of them," LaVictoire said.
Learning of the lies is a hard blow for LaVictoire, who has spent nearly three years confiding in Paula Brooks. They built a relationship, working side-by-side on the Lez Get Real blog, and LaVictoire felt that their bond, however virtual it was, was strong. Brooks supported LaVictoire throughout her gender transition and acted as a reliable friend.
Over time, LaVictoire fell in love with Paula Brooks.
"I did," she said. "And I wish I hadn't."
"I don't meet a lot of people, so anyone who gives me affection or returns affection to me - it can be a weakness for me," LaVictoire said. "I feel very abused."
LaVictoire said that this was not the first time that she has met a woman online, developed feelings for her, and then discovered she was only an avatar for a man
"I've been very hurt," she said specifically about the revelation of Paula Brooks. "I've talked to Bill very little. Through most of yesterday, I couldn't get five minutes into a conversation with this person without me crying my eyes out. It was very, very difficult."
"He hurt my daughter," said Carbonell, who has done most of the communication with Graber since Monday. "Bridgette is a very vulnerable soul, and Paula became her best friend. And that hurt. It hurt her a lot to discover that Paula didn't exist. This is a mother's anger more than anything else. I'm very protective of my child."
Picking Up the Pieces
LaVictoire said that she intends to work at rebuilding some of the friendships she has crafted during her work with lesbian blogs, including Lesbiatopia editor Renee Gannon, Lez Get Real co-founder Julie Phineas, and Melanie Nathan. "I have to try and repair those friendships, and it's very difficult for me to do that."
As for her relationship with Bill Graber, LaVictoire is less certain. "It may take a very, very long time before I can have civil words with him," she said. "At the moment all I want to do is get as far away from this as possible. Get this behind us."
She said that coming under the microscope of the media and readers of Lez Get Real has been challenging. "I am a very private person," she said. "I have severe anxiety issues around people, and to a certain extent, I'm agoraphobic. Honestly, all of this scares me."
That doesn't mean that LaVictoire has plans to dismantle Lez Get Real. Carbonell has already issued an apology and fuller story about the Paula Brooks debacle online, asserting that the new direction of the blog has yet to be determined.
LaVictoire simply wants to continue working. "I plan on continuing the journalism work with more of my own voice," she said. The blog has given me a way to help my brothers and sisters out there, and to help me. It doesn't make sense to live in a world where people are treated differently because of how they were born or what social class they were born to or their disabilities or any of it. That's what sold me on Lez Get Real - that I would have the chance to help others. I don't want to stop helping others."
Read the entire "Lez Get Real" story at The Bilerico Project:
img courtesy of Bridgette LaVictoire and screenshots