An Alabama mayor ended his life after a website showed pictures of him cross-dressing F.L. "Bubba" Copeland said he was under an "internet attack" after an Alabama website published photos of him in women's clothing and makeup. His death puts a spotlight on media ethics.

An Alabama mayor ended his life after a website showed pictures of him cross-dressing

As mayor, F.L. "Bubba" Copeland spurred the designation of a historical site, and the creation of an outdoor community center and a public works department. He also led the city through the pandemic. The city of Smiths Station hide caption

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The city of Smiths Station

As mayor, F.L. "Bubba" Copeland spurred the designation of a historical site, and the creation of an outdoor community center and a public works department. He also led the city through the pandemic.

The city of Smiths Station

F.L. "Bubba" Copeland wore many hats in the small city of Smiths Station in east Alabama. He was the mayor, a pastor and the owner of a local grocery store. He was also a husband and father.

But in the days before Copeland took his life, the 49-year-old was revealed to have another identity — this time, of a man who liked to dress up as a woman and write erotic fiction.

On Wednesday, 1819 News, a website previously owned by the conservative Alabama Policy Institute, wrote that Copeland used a string of social media accounts under a pseudonym. The outlet also included several photos of Copeland in women's clothing and makeup that the site said were posted under the accounts.

Two days later, Copeland killed himself, the Lee County Sheriff's Office said.

If you or someone you know may have thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.

A funeral service for Copeland is scheduled for Thursday.

It's impossible to know all the factors that led to Copeland's suicide. But his death puts a spotlight on media ethics and when, if ever, it's appropriate to publish stories on people's private lives.

1819 News published a series of articles on Copeland

The social media accounts belonging to Copeland described a transgender woman in the process of medically transitioning, 1819 News said. But Copeland told the outlet he was not actually doing so. He added that his wife knew of his private hobby, 1819 News said.

Copeland told his congregation on Wednesday at a weekly prayer service that he was under an "internet attack." He admitted to taking photos of himself in women's clothing, but added that "a lot of things that were said were taken out of context."

"The article is not who or what I am," he said, according to a recording of the service. "I apologize for any embarrassment caused by my private or personal life that has come publicly."

Two days later and hours before Copeland's death, the outlet released another article, focused on fictional stories and social media posts it says were produced under Copeland's pseudonym.

1819 News alleged that Copeland had used the names and photos of real community members in these posts without their consent. The article emphasized one fictional narrative about a trans woman's infatuation with a local business owner that turned deadly. 1819 News said that the business owner character was inspired by a real-life person and business familiar to Copeland.

1819 News did not respond to NPR's request for comment. On Friday, the outlet reported on Copeland's death and expressed its condolences.

"Our prayers are with the residents of Smiths Station, the parishioners of First Baptist Church of Phenix City and Copeland's family," the outlet wrote.

Publicly outing a person's private life can be harmful

Gary Hicks, a communications professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, has studied the history and consequences of outings, or when the media exposes a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or other private details of their personal life without the person's permission.

The act of wearing clothes associated with another gender is not synonymous with being gay, lesbian or transgender. But like with many practices that challenge typical gender norms, outing a person's interest in cross-dressing without their consent can be extremely harmful, Hicks said.

"I cannot find a good reason to out a person in a story," he said. "You do not know what the ramifications are going to be."

Hicks pointed out that some news organizations have justified outing elected officials if they actively denounce or vote against gay rights. NPR was not able to find any evidence that Copeland held such views.

Historically, people who do not conform to gender norms have been accused of being deceptive or secretive. But Hicks said decisions related to a person's gender or sexual orientation are deeply personal and it can take a long time for a person to fully understand themselves.

"The decision to come out in any way belongs to the individual and not a news organization or anyone else," he said.

Copeland led his city during a period of immense growth and grief

Mayor Bubba Copeland visits an area that was damaged by a tornado on March 5, 2019 in Smiths Station, Ala. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mayor Bubba Copeland visits an area that was damaged by a tornado on March 5, 2019 in Smiths Station, Ala.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Copeland was born in Columbus, Ga., but lived in Smiths Station, Ala., for most of his life. He attended Smiths Station High School and later, Auburn University, where he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He went on to own and operate a grocery store.

His political career began in 2008 as a school board member for Lee County. In 2016, he became the second person ever to be mayor of Smiths Station.

During his time in office, Copeland was devoted to the city's growth and development. He spurred the designation of a historical site, and the creation of an outdoor community center and a public works department. He also championed a million-dollar road improvement project to address traffic congestion. And he guided the city through unprecedented challenges, including a deadly outbreak of tornadoes in 2019 and the COVID pandemic.

Amid all his mayoral duties, Copeland also served as a senior pastor at First Baptist Church in nearby Phenix City.

Copeland's community reacts with grief, confusion and anger

On Sunday, the First Baptist Church of Phenix City kept its service short for congregants to mourn together the loss of their senior pastor. Before that began, church member David White shared a few words.

"I cannot tell you that I fully understand or can explain the scope of his tragedy," he said, according to a recording. "There are some things I do know are absolutely true. I know that my friend Bubba Copeland loved this church and its people."

Later that day, his church published an online obituary.

"He helped guide the City through a period of tremendous growth and development, and earn its place as one of the fastest growing Cities in the State of Alabama," it read. "Beyond serving his church, city, and community, Bubba loved spending time with his family and serving his community."

The Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, of which Copeland's church was a part, said it was grieving with the Phenix City First Baptist Church.

"We hold all those who mourn Bubba Copeland in the light and love of Christ as they await the promised comfort of God," wrote coordinator Lucas Dorion.

In a statement, Lee County Democrats said Copeland had a heart for service, adding that Copeland provided "countless people with hope and support" during the pandemic and 2019 tornadoes.

"Mayor Copeland was the backbone of Smiths Station," the group wrote on Friday.

Former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones said he was heartbroken by the loss of Copeland, who he described as a friend, a "good man and great mayor." Jones also directly condemned 1819 News.

"It is sad and disgusting how he was treated by the @1819News for personal decisions however misguided they might have been," Jones wrote on X.

The former superintendent of Phenix City schools, Larry DiChiara, said he was enraged by how Copeland was treated in the days before his death.

"I just want to ask you people who thought it humorous to publicly ridicule him, 'Are you happy now?' What crime did he commit? Some of you people make me sick," DiChiara said in a social media post.

Clarification Nov. 7, 2023

An earlier version of this story said 1819 News was affiliated with the Alabama Policy Institute. The website was previously a fully owned subsidiary but was launched as a separate organization in 2023, according to 1819 News.