RACE, RELIGION + SOCIAL JUSTICE

Pastor’s suicide brings warnings against LGBTQ+ outing amid erosion of rights

Nov 9, 2023, 1:37 PM

FILE - Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland speaks during the Wednesday, March 3, 2019, tornado reme...

FILE - Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland speaks during the Wednesday, March 3, 2019, tornado remembrance ceremony at Courthouse Square in downtown Opelika, Ala. (Sara Palczewski/Opelika-Auburn News via AP)

(Sara Palczewski/Opelika-Auburn News via AP)

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.


If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (1-801-583-2500).


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.”

On Sunday, flowers sat piled in a memorial against a wooden cross outside the church where Copeland’s funeral service will be 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. They’re 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.

Friends and congregants shared stories about Copeland and said they hope he is remembered for other aspects of his life.

“He was such a good person. They just don’t know the person that they just destroyed,” Peacock said.

White, who recalled the pastor as kindhearted and hardworking, said he has been thinking about what he will say at Copeland’s funeral.

“Your legacy is not what hits the media in the week before your death, but it is in the minds and hearts of the hundreds and thousands of people that you have touched and that love you,” White said.

 

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Race, Religion + Social Justice

The Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Utah's population is facing cha...

Heather Peterson

Utah’s population changes in age and race

Utah's population is getting older with more than 12% now at or above retirement age. At the same time, part of the population now identify as a minority because of racial and ethnic diversity.

2 days ago

Utah has the highest percentage of religious adherents than any other state in the country....

Emma Keddington

Utah has most religious adherents in the country

New data indicates that Utah contains the most religious adherents in the country. 

8 days ago

FILE: Alissa Pili #35, Lani White #3, Dasia Young #34, Kennady McQueen #24, Inez Vieira #2, Reese R...

Amie Schaeffer

No charges filed in racist incident against Utah’s women’s basketball team, NAACP responds

Jeanetta Williams reacts to the decision to not file charges against a man who yelled racial slurs at the the women's basketball team.

17 days ago

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a dedication date for a temple in Brazil ...

Mark Jones, KSLTV.com

Church announces dedication and groundbreaking dates for temples in Brazil, Bolivia and Texas

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced a dedication date for a temple in Brazil and groundbreaking dates for temples in Bolivia and Texas.

19 days ago

Columbia University students participate in an ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus f...

CEDAR ATTANASIO, JAKE OFFENHARTZ and JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press

College campus demonstrations continue ahead of graduations

Demonstrations at college campuses continue across the country as students protest the war in Gaza cancelling some graduations.

27 days ago

West Jordan will be one of the sites for two new Utah temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latt...

Simeone Seikaly and Kyle Remund

Church of Jesus Christ announces locations for two new Utah temples

The temples to be built in Lehi and West Jordan, Utah, were announced just weeks ago during the Church's April conference.

1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

Pastor’s suicide brings warnings against LGBTQ+ outing amid erosion of rights