The mayor of Alabama took his own life after photos of him in cross-dressing were published on a website.

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

However, a few days before Copeland took his own life, it was revealed that the 49-year-old man had another identity—a man who enjoyed cross-dressing as a woman and writing erotic fantasy.

On Wednesday, the website 1819 News, previously owned by the conservative Alabama Policy Institute, reported that Copeland had used several social media accounts under a pseudonym. The publication also published several photos of Copeland dressed as a woman with makeup, which, according to the website, were posted under these accounts.

Two days later, Copeland took his own life, according to the Lee County Sheriff's Office.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

A memorial service for Copeland is planned for Thursday.

It's impossible to know all the factors that led to Copeland's suicide, but his death brings attention to the ethics of media and when, if ever, it is appropriate to publish stories about a person's private life.

According to 1819 News, Copeland's social media accounts described a transgender woman in the process of medical transition. However, Copeland told the publication that he had not actually done that. He added that his wife knew about his personal interest, as reported by 1819 News.

On Wednesday, during his weekly church service, Copeland told his congregation that he had been subjected to an "internet attack." He admitted to taking photographs of himself in women's clothing but added that "many of the words said were taken out of context."

"The article doesn't speak to who or what I am," he said, according to the recording of the service. "I apologize for any embarrassment or shame that has been brought upon my or my family's personal life, which should have never been released to the public."

Two days later, just hours before his death, 1819 News published another article about fictional stories and social media posts that, according to the publication, were published under Copeland's pseudonym.

1819 News alleged that Copeland used real people's names and photos in these posts without their consent. The article focused on one fictional story about a transgender woman having a fatal encounter with a local business owner, which, according to 1819 News, was inspired by a real person and business known to Copeland.

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

"Our prayers are with the citizens of Smiths Station, the members of Phoenix City First Baptist Church, and the Copeland family," the publication wrote.

Public disclosure of a person's private life can be harmful, says Gary Hicks, a professor of communication at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who has studied the history and consequences of outing, as well as cases where media reveal a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or other private details of their personal life without their consent.

However, wearing clothing associated with the opposite gender is not synonymous with being gay, lesbian, or transgender. But, like many other practices challenging typical gender norms, revealing a person's interest in cross-dressing without their consent can be extremely harmful, Hicks says.

"I can't find a good reason to out someone," he said. "You don't know what the consequences will be."

Hicks noted that some news organizations justify outing elected officials if they actively condemn or vote against LGBTQ rights. NPR found no evidence that Copeland held such views.

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

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

Copeland led his city during a period of significant growth and challenges.

Mayor Bubba Copeland visits the Smiths Station area of Alabama, which was affected by a tornado on March 5, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images Copeland was born in Columbus, Georgia, but spent most of his life in Smiths Station, Alabama. He attended Smiths Station High School and later Auburn University, where he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He became the owner and manager of a grocery store.

His political career began in 2008 when he became a member of the Lee County School Board. In 2016, he became the second-ever mayor of Smiths Station.

During his tenure, Copeland dedicated himself to the growth and development of the city. He pushed for the creation of a historic site, the establishment of an outdoor public center, and a public works department. He also supported a million-dollar road improvement project to address traffic congestion. He helped the city overcome unprecedented challenges, including a deadly tornado outbreak in 2019 and the COVID pandemic.

In addition to all his mayoral duties, Copeland also served as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in nearby Phenix City.

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