The morning he learned his brother, Channing, had taken his own life, Joshua Smith drove three straight hours to see his father. Although Joshua lives in Paducah, Kentucky, his family resides in Manchester, a small town in rural Tennessee that’s home to the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival and not much else. “There's a couple of little restaurants,” Joshua says, struggling to define a town he has never called home.
His father moved the family to Manchester a few years ago after retiring, seeking the respite that pastoral life had to offer. “That's what he wanted,” Joshua recalls. “He wanted to have some peace and quiet.”
The evening before had been ordinary enough by the standards of a city of 10,000 people. Although his father struggled to communicate what had happened amid a state of shock, Joshua would later learn that the last time his father and brother spoke, they didn’t fight or quarrel. Channing scratched the head of the family dog, said goodnight, and went upstairs.
Now hours later, his father told him that he discovered Channing’s body. He had shot himself. Joshua put on his clothes, got in his car, and went to his father, and the two sat together for hours as Joshua consoled him through his sobs.
“In between crying, he walked me through what had been happening in their lives,” Joshua says. “He let [Channing] get a job at Burger King because he really wanted to work. He bought him a motorcycle, a real one. [Channing] played in a rock band, and my dad bought him a new guitar. From the surface, it looked like everything was OK.”
What neither Joshua nor his father knew at that moment was that the evening of Channing’s death, two of his classmates outed him on social media, posting screenshots of a sexually explicit text conversation with another male student. Although the 16-year-old privately identified as bisexual, confiding in a couple friends at school, Joshua says it would have been a struggle for his brother to be out in a “stereotypical Southern town.” Not even his family knew.
“He couldn't face the humiliation of going to school the next day,” Joshua says. “They would have just crucified him.”
Channing’s death immediately made international headlines, covered by the BBC, USA Today, and the New York Times. The day he spoke to Out, Joshua wore a plain white #JusticeForChanning t-shirt live on CNN and was preparing for an NBC Nightly News broadcast to air the same day. Because he’s been doing so many interviews, Joshua says he hasn’t had time to grieve, but he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“There's a moment in time where there’s a window of opportunity,” he explains. “In a week or two, everyone’s back to the groove of their daily life. I'm going to have to just press the pause button on resting and grieving. Until I see justice brought, I'm not going to quit.”
For Joshua, justice would mean seeing the classmates who shared his brother’s private text messages held accountable for their actions. At the time of publication, Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott has not stated whether the two students — whose names have not been released to the media — will face prosecution, claiming that he is “prohibited from commenting on an open investigation.”
Many have expressed concern that Northcott’s past history on LGBTQ+ rights will cloud his judgment on whether the students should face prosecution. The district attorney stated in 2018 that he does not prosecute intimate partner abuse between same-sex spouses as acts of domestic violence because of his personal opposition to marriage equality.
When asked if he was hopeful that Northcott would elect to press charges, Joshua is careful in his words. Initially he says sharply, “No,” but then adds after a couple seconds of thought: “He may.”
“I want to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he adds. “He said these things take time and that he would look at it. We’ll see.”
According to Joshua, even Channing’s high school has yet to respond meaningfully to his death. After news broke that his brother had taken his own life, Joshua claims administrators at Coffee County Central High School didn’t call an assembly to address the incident or provide support for students who were affected. He points out that the school still doesn’t have a statement on its website acknowledging Channing’s passing.
“They did send an email to parents saying that counselors would be available if any kids needed it,” Joshua says, “but they didn't really have any direct communication with the kids themselves.”
But while Joshua works to keep his brother’s memory alive, students at Coffee County Central High School have joined him. After a group of students made #JusticeForChanning signs in art class, he says the principal confiscated them but then the next day those students wore homemade t-shirts to school bearing the offending slogan instead. They were nearly identical to the one Joshua wore on CNN.
An hour or two after that interview went live, Joshua said the school “finally put something on [its] Facebook page, a graphic that shows the hotline and website for suicide prevention.”
Out could not locate a record of this statement. However, dozens of Facebook users have responded #JusticeForChanning and #ChanningMatters on the school’s social media posts over the past week, and those comments have only grown in numbers in recent days. The school’s latest post was met with over 100 replies.
Even as Joshua advocates on his brother’s behalf, he doesn’t want Channing’s life to be defined by tragedy. He remembers his sibling as “kind and caring,” calling him “the kind of kid that would listen to everyone else’s problems.”
“Really I just learned this,” Joshua says. “I always knew he had a good heart, but immediately after his death, other kids had said the’'d had issues with suicide and they would go to Channing. He was the one that would talk to them and help them through their problems. As strange as it is, it ended up being him in the end.”