As Brigham Young University’s mascot, Cosmo the Cougar, Charlie Bird was the face of athletics at the nation’s largest Mormon university, but he was hiding a significant part of his identity — that he was gay.
“As scary as it seemed to dance in front of 60,000 people, an even scarier thought often crept into my mind — ‘If they knew who I really was, would they hate me?’” Bird wrote in a commentary piece published Tuesday in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, in which he came out.
Bird was a popular mascot for the Utah university from 2015 to 2018, especially in his senior year, when videos of his dance routines were viewed by hundreds of millions of people on social media. “I performed live on ESPN at the College Football Awards, and NBC Sports dubbed 2017-2018 the ‘Year of the Mascot’ in honor of Cosmo’s viral influence,” he wrote. “When I was Cosmo, I felt invincible.”
But given the need to hide his sexual orientation, he had different feelings out of costume. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the formal name of the Mormon Church) is less than friendly toward LGBTQ people. It expects members to refrain from same-sex relationships, and as for transgender people, it considers gender fixed at birth and immutable. Bird often heard insensitive comments about LGBTQ people.
“The same community that made me feel like a superstar often simultaneously made me feel broken, unloved and defective,” he wrote.
He became involved with a group of students and administrators working to make BYU more inclusive. The group received permission to hold the first campus discussion on LGBTQ issues, and he has heard encouraging words from some Mormon leaders, including Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“While I am grateful for the progress, I feel we — as a community, state and country — still have a long way to go,” he continued. Specifically, he wrote, “We must recognize that members of the LGBTQ community are present and participating in both academic and religious discussions. We must learn that showing empathy and support is not a compromise of moral values. We must ‘comfort those that stand in need of comfort.’”
It could be credibly argued that the LDS Church is not making progress but going backward, with a policy of denying baptism to most children of same-sex couples and with leaders saying LGBTQ activism comes from Satan. But these topics did not come up in his essay or in a follow-up interview with Salt Lake City’s other daily, The Salt Lake Tribune, and Bird remains committed to working for change within the church. Since the essay was published, he has received “many, many, many” messages of support from LGBTQ church members and families with LGBTQ children, he told the Tribune.
While the piece in the Deseret News (which is owned by the LDS Church) marked his public coming-out, Bird had started opening up about being gay to certain friends and associates at BYU late in his senior year and “received nothing but love and support from coaches, teammates, and athletic administration,” he noted to the Tribune.
“I have somehow been blessed with an amazing platform where I can make my voice heard,” Bird, who now works for a consulting firm in New York City, added in the interview. “I wanted to make sure I used that platform to give a voice to people who don’t have that same opportunity, and share a very real story of what many people are going through.”