Catfished in the bayou? Gay councilman, 19, ousted after nude photos leaked
Cross Coburn lost his seat on Texas' Groves City Council after nude Grindr photos were leaked online. Now he's fighting back.
By Tim Fitzsimons
Cross Coburn is single. Cross Coburn is gay. Cross Coburn is an adult. And — like many other single, gay adults — Cross Coburn has shared suggestive selfies on Grindr, the world’s most popular gay dating app.
But, what sets Coburn’s story apart, is that his suggestive images, which he believed he was sharing privately with a man with whom he was chatting online, set off a chain of events that ended up costing him his job as a councilman in Groves, Texas, a small, conservative, bayou town on the Louisiana border.
“I do know that elected officials do need to be held to a high standard,” Coburn, 19, told NBC News, but, he added, “they still deserve a private life.”
Coburn was ousted from office earlier this month in a contentious recall election sparked by the Grindr images, but he has filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the petition that allowed him to be voted out halfway through his term.
Coburn’s attorney, Jill Swearingen Pierce, said it all started in February of this year when Coburn was first summoned to a meeting by Groves Mayor Brad Bailey. At the meeting, Bailey informed Coburn and Pierce that the city had received an anonymous envelope in the mail that contained “some highly disturbing photographs,” Pierce recalled.
“I said, ‘Let me see it,’ so he slides it over, I flip it over, and it’s obviously a private conversation on Grindr,” Pierce said, adding that the screenshots had been edited so the person soliciting Coburn’s images was completely anonymous.
After Pierce and Coburn viewed the images, the mayor, according to Pierce, told her client, “You need to think about your options, but you should probably resign.”
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But Coburn refused to resign. The mayor called him again, Coburn recalled, and said it would be best if he made a decision by the following Wednesday.
“I call him back and ask him, ‘Mayor, what exactly am I supposed to be making a decision on?’” Coburn told NBC News. “At this point he snapped.”
According to Coburn, Mayor Bailey then said, “Now I’m getting pissed. It’s about time you grow up and take responsibility for your actions, you cannot hide from your past.”
Soon after, a different set of anonymous envelopes containing the same information and images was sent to local news outlets, which published stories about the salacious photos.
“Is this in any way proper behavior of a councilman to represent himself online or a ‘dating’ app? I felt the city council should be made aware of the situation,” the note accompanying the anonymous envelope stated, according to local outlet Port Arthur News.
Port Arthur News quoted Mayor Bailey as saying, “I would like it to be known that the city is aware of this (photos), the allegations of photos of private areas … We have met and discussed it with our police department and HR department. It will be an issue.”
Coburn, who alleged he was targeted due to his sexuality, said a recall petition began to circulate over the summer. After the petition was filed, he said "a man in the hallway outside city council said, 'Good now we can get that faggot out of here.'"
On Election Day, Coburn lost his seat in the recall by a vote of 2,071 to 1,138. The seat currently sits vacant.
But before the election even took place, Coburn and Pierce filed a lawsuit attempting to block the recall petition. They said two people whose names appear on the petition signed affidavits stating they had never signed it.
According to the Port Arthur News, the “duly sworn person” handling the pages of the petition where the contested signatures were was “Darla Bailey, wife of Groves Mayor Brad Bailey.”
Coburn said he does not know who could have sent his Grindr images to the town council, but he alleged that Groves Councilman Kyle Hollier forwarded the images on to local news outlets. Hollier would not provide a comment to NBC News regarding Coburn’s allegations.
“Due to the lawsuit that we are under right now and by the advice of our city attorney, I have no comment,” Hollier stated. Calls to the Bailey residence requesting comment from the mayor and his wife were unanswered.
Coburn and his lawyer allege Bailey and others committed fraud by adding at least two people to the recall petition. If an appeal finds in favor of Coburn, the recall petition could be invalidated, which would restore Coburn to his position on the council.
“This is my life — this is what I have decided I want to do,” Coburn said. “I want to dedicate my life to public service and to the public, and I believe this is my place in the wider revolution for our democracy.”
Chuck Smith, CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, said his organization hopes an investigation would “determine whether any election laws or municipal ordinances were violated in the actions that led to Cross Coburn’s recall.”
“It is sad that a young man recently elected to public office to serve his home town has effectively been tarred and feathered and removed from office for being gay,” Smith said.