Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Bubba: A Cancel-Culture Casualty – but Not in a Town Without Pity



1. The Scoop

On November 7, 2023, I was forwarded an email that began, “I know the world is on fire but have you guys read anything about Bubba Copeland, the Alabama Mayor/Pastor who committed suicide after being outed by 1819 ‘news’?” 

The woman who wrote the email was a longtime friend of Fred “Bubba” Copeland, whose suicide at age 49 and what was believed to have led to it – the online newsletter 1819 News publishing a story that revealed Copeland as a secret cross-dresser who several years earlier had published erotic fiction under a pseudonym – had rocked the towns of Phenix City, Alabama, where Copeland was the pastor at First Baptist Church, and nearby Smiths Station, where he was the mayor. It was on a country road 15 miles north of Smiths Station where Copeland fatally shot himself in front of local police on November 3. 

The email writer, who I’ll call Laura, was disgusted at the national press for seizing on the story and characterizing Copeland’s “outing” and subsequent suicide as symbolic of the perils facing the trans community. “He liked to cross-dress — who said he was trans?” she said, referring to  articles like one in the Los Angeles Times titled, “America’s tragic war on LGBTQ+ people extends its collateral damage.” Like many others, this piece showed little interest in Copeland beyond requisitioning his suicide to prove a point.

Laura did not appreciate her friend’s death being “whitewashed and used as propaganda for trans activists’ benefit.” She was also livid at 1819 News and did not want theirs to be the last word.

 In closing her email she asked whether someone might be interested in Copeland’s story. “I don’t know any media people,” she wrote. “No one local will cover it.”

I was interested in finding out what every reporter asks themselves: “Why this story now?” Laura was correct, the world was on fire. Israel was at war with Hamas. Americans were confronting the full extent of the learning losses suffered during the pandemic, and we were moving into another contentious election year. And yet a publication no one in Smiths Station or Phenix City had previously heard of had decided to go hard after a man they’d known nothing about two days earlier, a four-stories-in-three-days campaign that resulted in the man blowing his brains out. It was a cancel crusade on steroids. What was the logic here? Why had Bubba Copeland felt so desperate? And what satisfaction was 1819 News trying to reap when they pointed to Copeland and said figuratively, “Him. Hate him.”

***

If 1819 News was signaling a moral agenda, so was the Los Angeles Times. Like Laura, I did not agree with using other people’s tragedies to further pet political aims, no matter how much I might agree with them. I thought it lazy and unethical that an outlet like the Daily Beast (“Alabama Mayor Kills Self After Right-Wing Blog Outs His Cross-Dressing”) would use Copeland’s death to fuel the culture wars, without bothering to know anything about Copeland beyond whatever salacious details might be useful to the mission.

The CEO and president of 1819 News had also known nothing of Copeland beyond a few details, nor – though the newsletter operated 130 miles away in Birmingham – had he ever heard of Smiths Station. As a self-proclaimed “soldier of Christ,” Bryan Dawson felt it his duty to expose Copeland and, after the suicide, claimed to have no misgivings about publishing the stories. I emailed Dawson to ask about this. I wanted to know whether he’d considered what unveiling such information might do to a man’s life, and if he was surprised by the citizens of Smiths Station and Phenix City standing behind Copeland. Dawson didn’t respond, but the writer of the story did, telling me he knew, after the story ran, “That 100% percent I’m going to be unemployable anywhere else.”  

***

On December 15, I drove from New York to Columbus, Georgia, and moved into a two-story Airbnb with 12-foot ceilings and a gothic staircase so precipitously steep I thought of Bette Davis pushing Joan Crawford down the stairs in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” I’d prearranged interviews with a dozen people who’d known Copeland, people sideswiped by his suicide who wanted me to know he was a good man; how he’d helped many in the community, how he “always brought the sunshine.” 

The woman who told me this agreed to meet in the conference room of the law office owned by a mutual friend of Copeland. She told stories of the Copeland she knew as a teenager, how he “had something of a swagger” and that he was “definitely a heartbreaker.”

“He was the shit back then,” she said, despite Copeland “sort of looking like a thumb”; he was squat and stout and preferred throwing house parties to footballs, though he played that, too. All the boys did — you sort of had to.  

“But I can’t help but wonder that he had these internal struggles, potentially, that made him feel less of a man,” said the woman. “Or at least that he could have been perceived that way, because of the way he felt maybe on the inside. I have no idea.”

She had not seen Copeland in some months when she got a call from her husband’s aunt, who’d seen the original 1819 News stories, asking, “Have you seen all this stuff about Bubba?”

“I was in shock,” she said, and reached out to him immediately by texts, which she pulled up on her phone.

“I said, ‘Hey, friend, I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now. I’m thinking of you. Please reach out if you want to talk. I’m on your side,'” she said. “That was at 12:08. At 1:20, he said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I’m hurting so bad right now. Yes, it’s 90% false and 10% real. I have dressed like Angela as a bit of fun. I just hate my personal life went public.’”

The woman did not hear from Copeland as the 1819 News campaign went into overdrive, when, as she saw it, “they doubled down, and then tripled down, and quadrupled down. I couldn’t believe how out for blood it felt like they were, and how unapologetic they were.” 

She showed me her final texts with Copeland, several hours before he killed himself.

Woman: “Hi, my friend, I’m thinking of y’all.” 

Copeland: “Thank you. Just in a bad place.” 

The last time she saw her friend was at Vance Brooks Funeral Home, off the 280W by the Walmart. “Closed casket,” she said. “There wouldn’t have been much to look at.” 

Instead, the hundreds crowded into the chapel watched a slideshow of Copeland’s life, including a picture of him with President Trump, taken after a deadly tornado had blown through the area in 2019 and Trump came to survey the damage.

“Actually, when Trump came and I saw that picture of Bubba, I sent a message, I told him I was disappointed,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I got to play the part.’”

Another area where residents of a deep-red Southern state were going against the priors the media assumed for them: that of an intolerant monolith who would have axiomatically rejected Copeland. The people I met were not filled with white rural rage, some were not Trump fans, and none were going to reject a man some of them had known their entire lives over, as Laura put it, “some weird kink he and his wife had.”

“If it’s confined to the marital bedroom, I don’t care,” said Donny Brown. I was visiting with Brown, his wife Pam, and grown son Luke in their home in Phenix City. Over holiday Chex Mix, Brown told me his theory as to why Copeland had become a target. 

“I think that was an opportunity for 1819,” he said. “Society has a huge appetite for smut and smearing people. Everybody wants to go viral over something.”

“No one had heard of 1819,” said Pam. “Everybody’s heard about them now.”

The family praised Copeland’s largesse. Pam mentioned he’d been the community’s “Person of the Year” in 2020. Luke recalled that when the refrigerators in his home had gone out from a power loss, Copeland let him toss the spoiling food in the dumpsters behind The Country Market, the superette and gas station Copeland ran, and also the place where Copeland had given Luke, then an awkward teenager, his first job as a stockboy.

“As a parent, you love people who love your children, and Bubba loved Luke,” said Brown. Still, as an ordained minister himself, he wrestled with what his longtime friend had been caught doing, and what exactly the community might, had Copeland lived, been expected to do about it.

“Now, of course, homosexuality does go against the Bible. There’s no getting around that,” he said. “Do I put somebody like that in leadership in the church? I don’t think so. But they’re welcome. I would welcome anybody in my church.”

“Being a pastor, being a mayor, you’re just opening yourself up to attack for no reason,” said Luke. “And being just how smart of a man Bubba was, it doesn’t seem like he would be that … I don’t know if careless would be the way to put it.”

Reckless, maybe?

“Reckless,” he said.

“Reckless, mm-hmm,” said Pam.

“Reckless, yeah,” said Brown.

Pam handed me a container of homemade peanut brittle on my way out the door. 

“1819,” she said, “is responsible for his suicide.”

I stayed a week in Alabama. I had my hair done in a salon owned by the woman whom Copeland had used as a model in several of his erotic stories, a woman he fictionally murdered in order to take over her identity and sleep with her husband.

I met with a 17-year-old who told me that when his own father hung himself in the backyard, it was Copeland who showed up immediately to comfort him and his family. “Anytime there was a suicide, he would be out there to console,” he said.

And I drove halfway across Alabama to sit with Craig Monger, the writer of the 1819 News stories, a man who not long before had been addicted to hard drugs and who began to tremble as he recalled phoning Mayor Copeland to tell him, “We have photos, we are going to run a story.” 

Laura thought this despicable, and only more after Esquire ran a long feature about Copeland, “Right-Wing Media and the Death of an Alabama Pastor: An American Tragedy,” which included several emails 20-year-old Carter Copeland had sent to Craig Monger.

“I am Bubba Copeland’s son. What you have done is not by any means journalism,” he wrote, after the initial story broke. Carter did not receive a response to the email, nor to the message he sent Monger after his father’s suicide. “You and your colleagues took my father from me. … I hope the Lord’s judgment for you is swift and deliberate.”

“How dare he not respond to Carter? Coward,” Laura texted me. “Monger may have been a pawn. Idk. It’s all so disgusting. I have so much more hatred for 1819 than I even thought possible. … I hope [Bryan] Dawson rots in the hell he perceives is real and he wants everyone else to burn in.”

2. The Wrecking Crew

Piggybacking onto Copeland’s suicide might have been an easy call for the Los Angeles Times and any outlet that saw it as a mandate to vocally support a pro-trans position, putting Copeland’s flesh to the conceptual threat of, “Would you rather have a live daughter or a dead son?” 

But why, I wondered, had 1819 News thrown the grenade? And who supplied the ammunition? I agreed that writing about a public official’s picadilloes was a story. If, say, the press found out that Mitch McConnell secretly in dressed in woman’s clothing (an interesting image to conjure, for sure), it doubtless would be written about. Still, I expected a news organization to first ask itself, why are we doing this? What’s the objective here? Is it attendant upon us to leave any part of a person’s private life private, or are we willing and perhaps obligated to obliterate that wall, to put our full weight on a man’s back and ride for personal glory?

It wasn’t as though you were going to stumble across the erotica that Copeland published in 2017 and 2018 and under the pseudonym Brittini Summerlin, among the 46,000 pieces on FictionMania, a site for “fans of transgendered fiction.” You would likewise have to sift through nearly one billion Reddit users to come across the photos of Copeland posted of himself dressed in women’s clothing. There was deliberation on the part of whomever had gone digging, and I tried to picture the person, goods in hand, knowing they had the power to in all likelihood uproot a man’s life and considering the ethics of doing so. 

1819 News was evidently unencumbered by such considerations. 

“1819 wants to be the morality police,” Bill Britt told me. Britt is the editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter. He told me that most of the state’s other news sites, including AL.com, had been critical of the doggedness with which 1819 News pursued Copeland, publishing an opinion piece after his suicide titled, “Copeland’s secret life is none of our business.” The site quoted Larry DiChiara, a former Republican congressional candidate in Alabama in 2016, saying, “I just want to ask you people who thought it humorous to publicly ridicule him, ‘Are you happy now?’” I would learn that Jay Jones, the Lee County sheriff who was intimately involved in the aftermath of Copeland’s suicide, had phoned 1819 News editor-in-chief Jeff Poor prior to the first story’s publication and said, of Copeland, “Hey, this is a good guy, don’t run this.” 

Let’s back up. 1819 News started in 2020 as a podcast, with funding by the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank whose website says it “protects fairness, freedom, and families by investigating, initiating & informing about public policy ideas.” API put up the initial money to fund 1819 News and installed Bryan Dawson as CEO and president. In a 2021 post Dawson explained, sort of, why he’d been given the job: “Because of my background in news and media, I know a lot of people that work in the political space in Alabama, so I was able to get some information about what was really going on.”

What political acumen and media experience Dawson possessed, he would had to have picked up on the fly. In a 2019 article for Newsweek titled, “From Breaking Bad to Redemption: The Story of Bryan Dawson,” he recalled his hard childhood, his cocaine and meth addiction, and, in 2007, his beating a suspected snitch nearly to death with a padlock. Charged with attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and extortion, Dawson faced 384 years in prison. He would wind up serving 12 years, during which time he committed himself to Christ, reconnected with his 8th-grade crush and married her, and within two years was hired by 1819 News.

“API needed a media organ,” said Bill Britt, and that if the public hadn’t heard of 1819 News, state and local politicians certainly had. “It has outsize influence because the politicians listen,” he said. “It’s, ‘We will write about you if you don’t do our bidding.’”

That bidding would turn out not to include going after a small-town Alabama mayor. In the wake of Copeland’s suicide, API released a statement letting the public know it had formally separated from 1819 News on December 31, 2022, and no longer had any “legal, editorial or financial affiliation” with the news site. As for how 1819 News continued to stay afloat, Britt said it had “gotten another million last year.” 

“It’s not known [from] who, but it’s political,” he said, adding, “I just keep thinking, what did Bubba do to make this a news story?” 

To hear Bryan Dawson tell it, he had no choice. Upon 1819 News receiving a tip that included a link that showed Copeland cross-dressing, Dawson had felt it his duty to alert the community, to be, in the phrasing of someone I spoke with, “a soldier for Christ with an Uzi.” On a podcast three days after Copeland’s suicide, he and 1819 News editor-in-chief Jeff Poor dismissed the idea of not reporting on Copeland as naive and dangerous. 

“AL.com kind of came after us, ‘How dare we?’ I feel a little bit, how dare they? And then they’re trying to make [Copeland] out to be an almost George Floyd martyr,” said Dawson. “I stand behind our reporting 100%; I’m not budging an inch. We did exactly what we were created to do.”

“You really look at this and you think, what happens if I do the story and all the repercussions?” Poor said. “What happens if I don’t do the story?”

The short answer is, barring accident or illness, Copeland would still be alive, still be mayor of Smiths Station, still be a husband and father and stepfather to his wife’s two little girls. No crime had been committed, and after the first tranche of photos were released, the congregants at First Baptist Church in Phenix City had not sought to smite their pastor. In a sermon delivered after the initial 1819 News article, Copeland told those attending the Wednesday night service, “Yes, I have taken pictures with my wife in the privacy of our home in an attempt at humor because I know I’m not a handsome man. Nor a beautiful woman either.” 

Which should have gotten a laugh but didn’t; people were too stunned, if not so stunned that the church’s Facebook page didn’t begin almost immediately to flood with variations of, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” People seemed ready to meet Copeland where he was.

‘Mayor, We Have Photos’

There was also the instinct to find villains. The most obvious target was 1819 News, at whom people aired their disgust online: “Oh look, some more pseudo-Christian hate-filled scumbags … wait till your closet skeletons come out,” and “I hope 1819 gets gawker’d out of existence. They know what they did. They killed a man,” and “Who gave the tip? How did they find this information? Is there an underlying political agenda?”

“So it was weird, and that actually did play into it,” said Craig Monger, when I asked what he could tell me about who’d sent 1819 News the information about Copeland. It had been six weeks since Monger cold-called Copeland and said, “Mayor, we have photos.” Five weeks plus two days since Copeland committed suicide, also the day that Monger, whose byline was on the first four articles, began receiving death threats.

In a Tallassee, Alabama, coffee shop across the street from a historical sign commemorating Tallassee Confederate Officers Headquarters, Monger explained that on October 30, 1819 News received a Reddit link from someone who’d brought them information before, a tipster whom on the record Monger would say only that the person operated in political circles and, if he disagreed with someone’s political ambitions, might leak damaging details to the press.

“But Bubba Copeland had no political ambitions. He wasn’t going for state representative,” said Monger. “It seemed like this guy who gave us his tip just thought that this was gross behavior and he wanted someone to write about it.”

Monger followed the Reddit to an Instagram started in 2014 under the name Brittini Blaire, whose bio read, “A Transitioning Transgender Curvy Girl, that loves Smiling, Clothes and Shoes! Let’s chat: IG brittinisummerlin.” He saw photos of Copeland dressed in women’s clothing and chat messages he’d shared with admirers. He found the erotic fiction. Monger, who spent most of his youth in China as the son of American missionaries and who now describes himself as Calvinist Baptist (“We’re essentially Presbyterians that don’t baptize our children,” he explained), thought Copeland posting the images and erotica on social media was “reckless.” 

Monger worked on the story for less than a day before he got Copeland on the phone and asked, “Is this your Instagram? Are you Brittini Blaire?”

‘A Hobby I Do to Relieve Stress’

Monger, who is over six feet tall and built like a hockey player, started to tremble as he told me this. “I was audibly nervous and even right now,” he said, of cold-calling Copeland. “I said, ‘There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Is this you on Reddit and Instagram, as Brittini Blaire posting this stuff?’ He initially said, ‘No, never heard of it.’ I said, ‘Would it surprise you to know that this person’s taking pictures in your house, in your wife’s clothes?’”

Copeland started to talk then, telling Monger, “It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress” and “I have a lot of stress” and “I’m not medically transitioning” and “It’s just a bit of a character I’m playing.” 

With confirmation the images were of Copeland, Monger said 1819 News “felt obligated” to run the story. He then gave Copeland “a courtesy call,” to say the story would publish the next day.

“This call was worse,” said Monger. “He knew he was trapped.” 

An Appeal Not to Run the Story

Copeland asked 1819 News to please not run the story, that it was no one else’s business, that the stories were just fiction, that he’d deleted all his social media.  

“I know what a desperate person sounds like,” Monger told me, if not with a ring of victory, more resigned, as though this is just what you do in the news business. 

Which makes sense, I guess, given how he got into the news business. Monger had already told me of his own desperations: how he’d struggled since age 11 with drinking, with crank and meth; how a bum ear kept him from enlisting in the Navy, how he’d worked fast food jobs and driven an 18-wheeler before being sidelined by a back injury in 2021. It was shortly thereafter, not yet 30 and newly married, that Monger met Dawson at church.

“We had very similar backgrounds and so we just became friends,” he said. Dawson told him about 1819 News and offered him a position as a staff writer. It was Monger’s first job in journalism. It was way better on his back than driving a truck. He could help support his growing family and write about issues important to Alabamians, such as getting books that might seem LGBTQ-friendly out of public libraries. 1819 News does not make any bones about leaning into Scripture. A photo on their website shows staff in a prayer circle, and I could understand how men who’d battled demons on the order that Monger and Dawson had might need to hold fast to their version of faith, might need to cling to it for dear life, lest they be reminded of or sucked back into any darkness. 

But I wondered where grace fit in, where “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and whether the dogma they had fashioned for themselves, and by extension for their publication, made tamping down compassion for Copeland a no-brainer, made it easy to ignore the sheriff saying, “He’s a good guy, don’t run this” and contact from increasingly frantic friends and family warning that Copeland was in a dangerous place. 

Monger was home alone when he got word of Copeland’s suicide. “There’s no precedent or training for this,” he said. His wife and young children were away, which was just as well, as the death threats had started to fill his work email, and people were posting his home address on social media. He knew then that he was “going to be unemployable anywhere else.” He was at the center of the gyre he had started, the one that spits hate, and though the tremble in his hand might have indicated otherwise, Monger told me, “Looking back, I don’t see myself doing anything differently.”

3. Bubba

Until October 31, Bubba Copeland’s week followed a predictable pattern. He attended and led services at First Baptist Church. He spent time in his office as mayor of Smiths Station, a town with one stop-light and a Love’s Travel Stop, a gas and convenience store that Copeland had been influential in bringing to town, a coup people still remark on. From there he would drive ten miles to The Country Market, whose sign out front promised “Fresh Meat and Produce,” though the day I was there, there were steaks marked “Reduced for Quick Sale” and a young woman at the register who looked as though she’d had a rough night.

Which might have been okay with Copeland, who was known to hire people who might not fit the mold of small-town Alabamian. Copeland knew something about this. He had been dressing in woman’s clothes in secret for more than 20 years. Since at least 2014, he had been going online as a transgender woman. If the East Alabama Chamber of Commerce awarded Copeland its “Individual of the Year Award” in 2020, online he received a different sort of validation. Instagram messages show Brittini Blaire flirting with admirers who complimented her beautiful curves, her luscious ass.

Whether the communion Copeland experienced with strangers online brought him strength or made him overcompensate, the result was the same: He was the one who got up early before church to fix the Smiths Station stoplight when it went on the blink, who showed up at your house when your father hung himself in the back yard. It could be that helping others was a way to outrun what he thought of as his own dark secrets, but from what people told me, he was also just a good man, a man whose online life and whose role as community leader were, for a long time, able to grow in concordance, a concordance that ended when 1819 News bit down hard and did not let up.

Copeland’s stepdaughters were out trick-or-treating when the call came from 1819 News, letting him know his private and public worlds were about to collide, that by dawn the next day, the persona he had created – to relieve stress, to receive love – would be paraded as a symbol of degeneracy. 

Craig Monger told me he thought Copeland had been “reckless” to put his posts on social media; that he should have considered the risks. I don’t disagree. But risk requires someone or something to dole out consequence. Both of Copeland’s wives had been aware of and accepted his cross-dressing. His parishioners, while confused, knew he was telling the truth when he told them, from the pulpit, “This article is not what or who I am.” As pious people, they trusted in God’s mercy and that it was not up to them to pass judgment. I imagine Copeland found this a solace.

But I also wondered whether he had giftwrapped his own undoing, whether he’d left it online for someone to find, in the expectation that he would and should be punished.

Punishment turned out to be something 1819 News was good at. They would run seven stories about Copeland, three posthumously, accusing him of being “very sick,” calling his behavior “an abomination,” and urging him to “be ashamed.” Maybe the campaign was an attempt by staff to redeem their own past transgressions, to prove to whatever God they believed in that they were doing His work. Others saw simple cruelty. As a local reporter later observed, “Bubba was down, and they just kept kicking and kicking and kicking. It wasn’t enough for them to just expose him. They wanted to hurt him.” 

Whether what 1819 News did was for political reasons, to gain purchase on the media landscape, or to contrast their concept of Christianity with Copeland’s in order to find his lacking, can be debated and in the end doesn’t matter. The result was a man trapped in a hate gyre built by people who needed others to look bad so they could look good.

Corrections, May 23, 2024, 10 A.M. Eastern

The article has been revised to reflected the following corrections:

An earlier version misidentified, in three places in the article text and once in a photo caption, the Phenix City church where Fred “Bubba” Copeland was pastor. It is the First Baptist Church, not the First United Methodist Church.

An earlier version misspelled an Alabama town where an interview occurred. It is Tallassee, not Tallahassee.

This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.