SMITHS STATION, Ala. (AP) — After the 2019 suicide of a local teenager, small-town mayor and pastor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland helped students place roadside signs in his Alabama community to try to reach others who might be hurting.
“You are worthy of love.” “Don’t give up.” “You matter.”
Those were the same messages friends said they tried to get through to Copeland before he took his own life along one of those county roads two days after a conservative news site exposed social media posts where he appeared in women’s clothing, a wig and makeup.
The disclosure bombarded Copeland, 49, with online ridicule and his death, experts said, underscores the dangers of outing people in an era that has seen the erosion of LGBTQ+ rights as states across the country introduce legislation based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Copeland’s friends said they hope it prompts a wave of self-examination about how we treat others.
“I just want to ask you people who thought it humorous to publicly ridicule him. Are you happy now? What crime did he commit?” Larry DiChiara, a former school superintendent who knew Copeland from when he served on a county school board, wrote in a pointed Facebook post.
Copeland, the mayor of Smiths Station, a city of 5,300 near the Georgia border, ran a small grocery store and was pastor at First Baptist Church in nearby Phenix City, where a sign proclaims to passersby, “Jesus Loves You. All Are Welcome.”
His public social media presence detailed baptisms, family gatherings, homecoming parades and sales at his country store.
State Rep. Jeremy Gray, a legislator from nearby Opelika, said Copeland had been a “steadfast presence” after a 2019 tornado devastated rural sections of the county, killing more than 20 people. Copeland was photographed with then-President Donald Trump when he toured the area.
But Copeland’s private online life became public on Nov. 1 when a conservative news blog posted the first of several items describing posts he made using an alias on Instagram and Reddit as a “transgender curvy girl” with photos of him wearing women’s clothing and makeup.
After the disclosure, the state Baptist organization said it was aware of allegations of “unbiblical behavior” involving the pastor. And a nationally syndicated radio show said Copeland should be ashamed because the Bible teaches that it is an “abomination” for a man to dress in women’s clothing.
An additional post on Nov. 3, the same day Copeland killed himself, accused him of using the names and photos of local residents, including a minor, without permission in posts, including the real name of a local businesswoman in a fictional story about a man who develops a deadly obsession with taking over her identity.
Copeland told the news site that he donned women’s clothing as a way to release stress but was not transgender. He stood before his congregation on Nov. 1 to apologize and said that the photos taken in the privacy of his own home were an attempt at humor.
“This will not cause my life to change. This will not waver my devotion to my family, to serving my city, to serving my church,” Copeland, a husband, father and stepfather, said in the livestreamed service.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said that at the time of the suicide, deputies were attempting a welfare check on Copeland because of concerns he might harm himself.
Friends said Copeland acknowledged he was struggling in the days before his death. DiChiara said he reached out to Copeland by text last Thursday and the mayor responded that “it’s been some very dark days.”
“When this story came out, it was already painful and hurtful just to see it and know that, that this is going to cause a lot of grief for Bubba and his family. But as I read what was out there, it just was getting progressively worse, and I just saw some real ugliness in people and their comments,” DiChiara said.
Jack Drescher, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of “Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man” said outing can be an act of violence and in this case it “precipitated a violent response.”
Drescher said people can have reasons to keep sexual or gender identities and behaviors, such as cross-dressing, secret because they don’t feel like they would be accepted.
“It was probably a great source of shame and embarrassment to be outed like that,” Drescher said.
Chad Peacock, a former Auburn resident, said Copeland was one of the few elected officials to show support for a local Pride event he organized. He said he believed the anti-LGBTQ climate in the state bears some responsibility for Copeland’s suicide.
“You have to fit the box. You can be who you are, but you should be ashamed of who you are if you’re different,” Peacock said of the atmosphere.
Alabama lawmakers have imposed bans on transgender women playing on female sports teams in schools and colleges and approved a ban, now in litigation, on treating transgender minors with gender-affirming hormones or puberty blockers. The state in 2019 changed the process for obtaining a marriage license because several probate judges had refused to issue them after the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry.
“The unrelenting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric coming from state legislative houses and high-profile politicians has real life consequences in the form of online and in-person bullying, harassment and violence,” said Sam Lau, vice president of communications for LGBTQ+ advocacy group The Human Rights Campaign.
Lau noted the long history of outing public figures in the U.S., which he said “consistently causes harm — forced outing is a direct attempt to endanger the person being outed.”
Earlier in the week, flowers sat piled in a memorial against a wooden cross outside the church where Copeland’s funeral service was held Thursday. The church, like Copeland, has been targeted with hateful comments on social media, church member Dr. David White said.
“The anonymous nature of the internet seems to make a lot of people without sin. There are people that cast stones from across the horizon that you can’t respond to and you can’t defend. So I hope it makes us all reflect,” White said.
At his funeral, friends and family remembered Copeland as a boisterous man known for saying “ain’t God good,” doting on his family and going out of his way to spread kindness in their community.
“A person’s legacy is not created in a moment of despair. It is defined by his friends and those that love him,” White said.