The suicide of a gender non-conforming GOP mayor reveals the incoherence of the right's culture wars

Instead of thanking a Breitbart writer for outing their leader, this conservative Alabama town is outraged

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 14, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

F.L. "Bubba" Copeland (City of Smiths Station)
F.L. "Bubba" Copeland (City of Smiths Station)

For most Americans, viral internet memes are mostly harmless ways to waste time: Trendy TikTok dances, goofy cat videos and Instagram thirst traps. For MAGA nation, however, the hottest online trend of the past couple of years has been digging up images of random queer people, splashing them all over the internet, and inviting the deplorables to threaten them. Libs of TikTok is a Twitter account dedicated to revealing the identities of gender non-conforming people, so that they can be abused by strangers, for no other reason than who they are. The account has 2.6 million followers, but its reach goes way beyond that because the names and pictures of people blasted by Libs of TikTok are then often amplified by right-wing media outlets like Fox News. 

"[T]he content it surfaces shows a direct correlation with the recent push in legislation and rhetoric directly targeting the LGBTQ+ community," Taylor Lorenz of the Washington Post wrote last year of Libs of TikTok. As USA Today reported earlier this month, there have been "dozens of bomb threats, death threats and other harassment after Libs of TikTok’s posts since February 2022." In November 2022, a Colorado gay bar was attacked by a shooter who appeared motivated by the rising tide of vitriol towards LGBTQ people. Five were killed and dozens injured. While Chaya Raichik, who runs the account, claims she doesn't want violence, no one really believes that. After all, she celebrated the story about the violence she inspires. 

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With targeted harassment of random queer people being the favorite pastime of MAGA nation, it's not surprising that a right-wing website thought the very conservative residents of one Alabama town would welcome the outing of their mayor. On November 1, 1819 News — an Alabama outlet run by Breitbart writer Jeff Poor — published an article exposing the cross-dressing and sexual fantasies of F.L. "Bubba" Copeland, who was both mayor and a local Baptist minister. 

Copeland's death is a horrible tragedy. His is also the latest in a line of lives destroyed by the GOP's anti-LGBTQ campaign.

"The secret life of Smiths Station Mayor and Baptist pastor F.L. ‘Bubba’ Copeland as a ‘transgender curvy girl’: ‘It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress,’” the headline read. The site shared photos of Copeland in women's clothing, as well as screenshots from the anonymous social media accounts where Copeland expressed this side of himself. (Salon is using male pronouns for Copeland, as he identified publicly as male, and referred to his female identity as a "cosplay." People who cross-dress are not necessarily transgender or gay, but they often face anti-LGBTQ biases.) Copeland consented on an interview with 1819 News, confirming that the accounts were his, but insisted it was a "hobby" and "fantasy." 

Two days later, Copeland killed himself. 

If 1819 News thought the very Republican residents of Smiths Station would be grateful that they had outed their Republican mayor, however, they had another thing coming. By all accounts, many people in the town are furious. "Members of this church have been steadfast in their love and concern of their pastor," David White, a congregant at First Baptist, said during Sunday's service

"We lost a good man in a very senseless and tragic way," Larry DiChiara, the former school superintendent, told the Guardian. On his Facebook page, the comments are mostly an outpouring of grief and love for Copeland. It's the same story in a post by crime reporter Colin Scroggins: kind words for Copeland, anger at 1819 News. There were some ugly comments, for sure, but even many people who expressed discomfort over Copeland's private life argued that it should have remained private. 

And then there was a subcategory of comment: The people insisting there's no conflict between outrage over what happened to Copeland and being MAGA. "I voted for TRUMP. I lean far right & what happened to this man is despicable," one woman wrote angrily. There was much talk of Christian forgiveness, all to smooth over the cognitive dissonance. 

It's frustrating because Copeland's death is obviously tied to the MAGA movement and the rising tide of hate against LGBTQ people. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people, especially trans people, have risen dramatically in the past few years. There's also been a surge of intimidation and threats against LGBTQ people, from harassment of drag shows to, of course, the direct and personalized abuse aimed at anyone that Libs of TikTok targets. 

On a recent episode of the "A Bit Fruity" podcast, host Matt Bernstein invited victims of the Libs of TikTok account to speak about their experiences. The stories are chilling: Schools facing down multiple bomb threats. People driven out of their jobs. Teachers asked by kids if anti-gay terrorists will kill them. But whenever people confront Raichik over the damage done by Libs of TikTok, she always denies responsibility. Instead, she claims, she's just sharing facts: This person is queer, this person looks feminine, this person does drag on the side. 

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Unsurprising, then, the 1819 News staff is using the same excuse for their "reporting" on Copeland. As the Daily Beast reports, 1819 News CEO Bryan Dawson insists all they did was "tell the truth." And Poor insisted that the people of "the First Baptist Church of Phenix City had a right to know what their worship leader was doing." As with Libs of TikTok, these excuses are disingenuous. In both cases, the "facts" are presented in a maximally salacious manner that hatefully implies queer people are perverts and predators. 

But there's every reason to believe that most, if not all, of the Trump voters who are angry over Copeland's death will not learn a damn thing from it. Insert whatever "leopards eating people's faces" jokes that you want. It really is remarkable, how much Republican voters believe their partisan identity is a shield that will protect them from the degradations Trump and his allies wish to inflict on the nation. There's a reason that Libs of TikTok has that name and not something more accurate like, "Let's Hate Queer People." Raichik is trying to soothe her audience into believing that they're not bigots, that this is about the "libs" and not the queers. Except that they are targeting people for being queer, and often have no idea if they're even Democratic voters. 

Trump himself is good at playing this game. He's taken to calling for mass genocide, such as in a speech last weekend in which he promised to "root out" the "vermin within the confines of our country." But even though part of Trump's program is explicitly about setting up concentration camps for immigrants of color, because he defined those "vermin" as "communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs," that allowed him to pretend he was just talking about Democrats (which is what all those code-words mean), and not about race, ethnicity or sexual and gender minorities. Sure enough, he got headlines like the one at the Washington Post that read, "Trump calls political enemies ‘vermin,’ echoing dictators Hitler, Mussolini." Good on them for calling out the fascism, but that framing still allows naysayers to claim it's all just overheated partisan rhetoric, rather than genocide talk. 

Copeland's outing and the defenses of it are proof of this. He was a Republican, and it did not protect him. The fascist agenda is never just about eliminating political opponents, though that's bad enough. It's always about "purifying" the nation. That invariably opens the door to intra-party purges, justified as self-defense against potential traitors. Right now, state Republican parties are being torn apart as MAGA loyalists attempt to purge anyone suspected of having pro-democracy sympathies. Former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted despite backing the far-right agenda, out of suspicions his heart wasn't MAGA enough. Many of the people Trump openly threatens to imprison are fellow Republicans, vilified for disagreeing publicly with his lies. Oh yeah, and there was the attempt to murder Trump's vice president, Mike Pence. 

The outing of Copeland follows the same logic. The management at 1819 News is arguing "we did what we had to do," and painting Copeland as a danger to the community. The people who actually knew him, however, seem to vehemently disagree. Yet MAGA nation, through Libs of TikTok and the "groomer" rhetoric, has positioned all queerness as a cancer that must be eradicated. Under that dehumanizing logic, there's no pleading "but this one guy is OK." 

That's the thing about the dehumanizing rhetoric of fascism: It has no limits. The scope of who will no longer be counted as a human being and must be "rooted out" always keeps expanding. Copeland's death was a tragedy, but only the latest in a list of lives destroyed by the GOP's anti-LGBTQ campaign. Too many people can't see, or refuse to understand, how and why this country is careening towards disaster. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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