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Suicide and the Question of Whether It’s Ever OK to Out Someone

Alabama Smiths Station Mayor FL Bubba Copeland
Image: vancebrooksfuneralhome.net

The suicide of an Alabama mayor and pastor shows the cruelty of being outed and raises the question if outing someone is ever appropriate even as retribution for hypocrites.

While watching the miniseries Fellow Travelers on Showtime over the weekend, I could not help but think of Smiths Station, Ala., Mayor and Pastor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland. He died by suicide last week after being involuntary outed as a transgender woman by a local conservative outlet, 1819 News, that was relentless in posting photos of Copeland embracing their secret gender identity.

More than anything, Fellow Travelers depicts the severe ramifications that were caused by being outed in the federal government — or, for that matter, in the private sector. Lovers turned on each other to save themselves. Those who were outed turned on others to spare themselves. And worse, some of those caught up in the process of being outed felt their only recourse was suicide.

For Copeland, it was like living in that dark and excruciatingly painful era, and he felt his only recourse was suicide, and he did it in front of sheriff’s deputies who came by his home for a welfare check. Oh, the horror of it all.

(Editor's note: The Advocate honors people’s chosen names and pronouns. Because Copeland did not publicly come out before their death, The Advocate is referring to them as the person they presented publicly.)

I’ve written in the past about my own experiences with suicide and the inconsolable grief experienced by survivors of those who die by suicide. I had frank talks with Congressman Jamie Raskin about his son’s suicide and with Sen. John Fetterman, who contemplated suicide. Those were enormously difficult conversations, and for me, even harder to write about. When the victim feels the only way to relieve an unbearable burden is to take their own life, there are no words.

Having survived attempts at suicide, I feel so lucky to be alive, but I also have enormous regret when reading about someone who didn't survive — if only I could have been there for them to let them know they were loved and that they just needed to hang on. That time does heal wounds, and it’s possible to move on.

I’ve tried to read all I could about Copeland. I wanted to know what he was like, and what I’ve discovered is that he was by all accounts a kind and compassionate soul. From all that I’ve gathered, he was not your prototypical southern pastor who espoused hatred and exclusion towards the LGBTQ+ community. And that makes his suicide even more troubling and devastating.

There’s another part to Copeland’s story, and that is the trauma and intense pain he endured by being outed. The cruelty of the purported conservative “news” site that outed him has no bounds. It was pure evil what its people did, and it wasn’t enough for them to just out him with one story, but they persisted in their maliciousness, until Copeland couldn’t cope anymore.

1819, the news site that did this to Copeland, went beyond merely outing him. It published the usernames of his social media accounts and photos of Copeland wearing female-presenting clothing and makeup. What was its goal in “exposing” Copeland? What did its staffers hope to accomplish? If their intent was to do massive harm, they succeeded.

I suspect there isn’t an ounce of remorse felt by the reporter who filed multiple stories about Copeland, Craig Monger, and the editor who approved those stories, Jeff Poor. It won’t surprise you to know that Poor is a former staff member at Breitbart News. Let's hope naming them brings some amount of shame and condemnation.

This whole incident raises the question of whether it’s ever OK to out someone. At certain points during its history, The Advocate would out individuals doing damage to our community, most especially during the AIDS crisis. But things have changed.

Sure, we dance around the edges about people's interested in queer subjects or mock their obsessions with queer things here and there. That includes in opinion columns — two written by me, for example, about queer-hater Lindsey Graham or, more recently, Speaker Mike Johnson, but outing is long in the past.

I can’t tell you how many people reached out after my column on Speaker Johnson’s obsession with gay sex and used two words to describe him: “closet case.”

I never said he was gay, but our readers make their own determinations about people who spew venom in our direction and then act another way in private. We are all too familiar with seeing right-wing lawmakers and evangelists who tear us down and in the end are torn down by their own hypocrisy. Modern history is littered with evangelicals who rail against gay sex only to engage in it, like Rev. Ted Haggard, Pastor Paul Barnes, Family Research Council cofounder George Rekers, and on and on and on.

And, the number of legislators who bore hate against our community while baring themselves with other men: former Congressman Mark Foley, former California state Sen. Roy Ashburn, former Ohio state Rep. Wesley Goodman. Again, on and on and on.

All these men were outed in one way or another, mainly because they brazenly thought that they could enrage violently against us while engaging lasciviously with us.

That’s the difference with Copeland. He wasn’t being duplicitous in the sense that he harbored any ill will toward the queer community; however, the extreme right saw that as the antithesis of what a southern pastor – and mayor --- should be doing. If the right-wing media wants to get into a pissing match of outing legislators and preachers, it had better be damn careful.

But while we might debate about whether it’s OK to out someone, we can’t lose sight of the most serious issue related to Copeland’s death, and that is suicide. In June, a New York Times headline blared, “No One Knows How Many LGBTQ+ People Die by Suicide.” That’s the real tragedy here.

While things might be a bit different since the days of being silently queer as shown in Fellow Travelers, all too often, many young closeted LGBTQ+ people still feel the only recourse is suicide, and that is because there are still people like Speaker Mike Johnson and media outlets like 1819.

Through their words and actions, they send a message that there is something wrong with being LGBTQ+. So in that sense, not much has changed, for many areas of the country and for some people, since the witch hunts of the 1950s.

And that’s what the outing of Copeland was – a witch hunt, whose underlying definition is a search for and subsequent persecution of. The very act of searching for something immensely personal about Copeland and putting salacious and lurid headlines over it can have only one result — persecution.

In the end, the persecution Copeland felt he would face from his congregation, his church’s leaders, and the general public became too much, too overpowering, and too humiliating. He died.

Can we hope and pray that Copeland's life and death can be used as a lesson for tolerance and respect moving forward? That’s highly unlikely. My guess is that 1819 is looking for its next victim, unapologetically proud of all the blood its reporters have on their hands.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.