In an interview after coming out as gay, man who was BYU’s dancing Cosmo the Cougar talks about ‘shame and isolation’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU fans and school mascot Cosmo look on as Utah holds a 35-0 lead over BYU in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, NCAA football at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday December 19, 2015.

He was the face of BYU athletics, entertaining crowds and gaining national notoriety for his dance moves as Cosmo the Cougar.

But Charlie Bird had another mask he was hiding behind.

In an opinion essay posted online Tuesday by the Deseret News, Bird revealed he is gay and that he hid his sexual orientation during his time performing as Cosmo from 2015 to 2018 at Brigham Young University. The private school is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and forbids “homosexual behavior” under its code of conduct.

Bird, who went to BYU after serving a full-time mission for the church, said as he attended school and performed as Cosmo, he realized his sexual orientation was an integral part of him.

During his senior year, Bird drew national attention for his dances during football games; videos posted online of his performances drew millions of views across various social media platforms. He also performed live on ESPN at the College Football Awards. NBC Sports dubbed 2017-2018 the “Year of the Mascot” in honor of Cosmo’s popularity.

“When I was Cosmo, I felt invincible,” Bird wrote.

But as Bird’s star rose, he said in a Tuesday interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he sensed a “dichotomy of having the one mask that was the thing I was most proud of, and the other because of my shame and isolation.”

Bird felt “immense pressure” to hide his sexual identity from his peers due to the unkind things people would say about the LGBTQ community, he wrote. “The same community that made me feel like a superstar often simultaneously made me feel broken, unloved and defective,” Bird wrote.

And he’s still trying to balance all of that.

“As I integrate my sexual orientation with my church activity and faith in Jesus Christ, my future sometimes seems bleak and overwhelming,” he wrote. The church has fought against marriage equality in political campaigns and lawsuits, and church policy deems members who enter same-sex marriages to be “apostates,” subject to possible excommunication.

“The family and friends who have shown me Christlike love and support, however, give me hope," Bird wrote.

Bird told the Tribune he kept his orientation a secret early in his stint as Cosmo, initially fearing he’d lose the gig if school officials learned he was gay. But after his dancing went viral, he began coming out to trusted friends and staff members. Bird said he initially turned to an athletic department administrator, who was supportive and allayed his fears that he might lose his place with the team.

Bird said he gradually felt more emboldened to speak to other athletes, in hopes that the loyalty he had earned as Cosmo could translate to more acceptance of LGBTQ students campus-wide — starting with the athletic department.

“There were no ‘out’ gay athletes at the time, and I felt very isolated," Bird said. ”I felt like I was doing so much to positively represent BYU and the athletics program, but I couldn’t see how BYU and the athletics program was positively representing gay students like me."

By the end of his senior year, Bird said, he began “telling more and more people as I got more comfortable and had more support.”

“I have received nothing but love and support from coaches, teammates and athletic administration,” he told The Tribune.

Bird said Tuesday’s essay gave him a chance to use his celebrity among BYU fans to help other LGBTQ people in the church.

“I have somehow been blessed with an amazing platform where I can make my voice heard,” he said. “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.”

In the essay, Bird called on members of both the Latter-day Saint community and the BYU community to recognize that there are LGBTQ people among them and they all have value.

“We must learn that showing empathy and support is not a compromise of moral values,” Bird wrote. “We must ‘comfort those that stand in need of comfort.’”

Bird wrote that he now has “taken off both masks.” Since finishing degrees in Global Supply Chain Management and Spanish at BYU, he has moved to New York City and now works for an international consulting firm in Manhattan, he said.

While he does miss performing as Cosmo, he said coming out has freed him from the “shame and embarrassment” that once felt so inseparable from his life.

“And it feels even better knowing that I don’t have to think of any more awkward excuses as to why ‘a nice young chap like me hasn’t found a wife and settled down,’” he joked.

Since the essay was published, Bird said, he’s gotten “many, many, many" messages of support from other gay members of the church and families of LGBTQ children.

Sharing his story "has allowed me to feel more fully the love of others,” Bird wrote in the essay. “Doing so has allowed me to feel more fully the love of God.”