Provo • The night before he put on the costume of Cosmo the Cougar mascot for a football game, Charlie Bird lost sleep.
The young student at Brigham Young University — which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — remembered how he felt about being gay: confused, depressed and trapped.
So when a mother came to him at the game, saying her son wanted to be just like Cosmo when he grows up, Bird thought to himself: “If this lady knew who I actually was behind this mask, would she let her son look up to me?”
Bird shared his story with a packed room as a keynote speaker at the Affirmation International Conference on Saturday afternoon. The three-day conference was held at the Utah Valley Convention Center by Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, as well as their families and friends.
For Bird — and many who spoke at another session during the conference — reconciling with both their Mormon faith and sexual orientation was a major struggle.
“I always felt so torn inside,” Bird said. “Both parts of me were so integral.
“When I would put on this Cosmo the Cougar mask, the entire LDS and Utah community loved me and embraced me ... honoring my talents,” he said. “But that was the same community that made me feel like I had to mask who I actually was.”
Like Bird, many shared their experience trying to hide their sexual orientations under the impression that being LGBTQ was shameful and wrong.
“Being gay was the first identity I was truly afraid to embrace,” said Carolyn Gassert, vice president of Understanding Same-Gender Attraction at BYU. Only two weeks shy of 19, Gassert first discovered that she was attracted to women.
“Growing up, it took me so long to come to terms with my sexual orientation … because I was taught not to embrace it,” Gassert said. “I was taught that if I chose to live the ‘gay lifestyle,’ that I would not be truly happy, that any happiness I find in that life is false or temporary.”
James Hudgins, who came out 10 years ago followed by a divorce, said he thought he would carry his secret to the grave.
“I had accepted that I would live alone the rest of my life, that I would never find love, and that’s the way it had to be,” Hudgins said. “The gospel was that important to me.”
Looking back at his past, Hudgins said he realized that he loved everyone but himself.
“Because I could not accept who I really, really was, and I hid behind that,” he said. “I feel like I have been swimming up a fire hose for 40 years, and I can’t do it anymore. I have to let go.”
Meagan Ricks, a BYU graduate who teaches at the school, identifies as lesbian. She said she never imagined she could keep her faith and sexual orientation, both of which she sees as dear.
Ricks choked up recalling the excommunication of her partner several years ago. Still, she and her partner never stopped going to church, she said.
“This is who we want to be,” Ricks said. “And even though right now the church culture may not accept us, we are going for us.”
“It is poverty of heart and thought when you willingly or carelessly reduce the beautiful and unique ways in which we connect to nothing but a cultural phenomenon and evil and wickedness,” said filmmaker and writer Jenn Lee Smith, who identifies as queer.
During her speech, Smith encouraged the audience to “embark on a journey of self-discovery.”
“Just take a moment to appreciate the big picture, which is that we belong here, wherever here is for you, and we are worthy of love and connection,” Smith said.
In overcoming his fear to step out of the closet, Bird said he realized that there is strength in praying to God and “separating the church from doctrine."
“I feel it’s so important to keep God involved in our growth process,” Bird said. “I can’t properly convey how amazing it is to understand that I am truly a child of God ... that I’m not broken or worthless or defective. I’m beautiful and unique and needed here.”
Bird called upon parents to offer their children understanding and open communication in helping them cope with their sexual orientation.
“If you give your child light and a space that’s open and safe,” he said, “you can still help them find their core values and show them ... the tools that are meaningful to you to connect with God.”