By Charlie Bird For the Deseret News
As Cosmo the Cougar at Brigham Young University, I kept the best part of my life a secret from everyone around me by wearing a mask. I traveled the country, performed for millions of people, took pictures with screaming fans, signed autographs and danced like no one was watching — even though everyone was.
My senior year as Cosmo was unforgettable. It was thrilling to watch fans around the globe share Cosmo’s newest dance video, which garnered hundreds of millions of views across social media platforms. 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. When I was Cosmo, I felt invincible.
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?”
I wore another mask while I was at BYU — a mask to cover the shame I felt for being “different.” For years I pleaded with God to change my sexual orientation, but after returning to BYU from a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I began realizing that being gay is an integral part of who I am. As I grappled to develop a better understanding of myself, I felt immense pressure to hide my sexual orientation. I was hyper-aware of what some of my peers said about the gay community, how they viewed same-sex attraction and the often unkind and insensitive words they used to describe LGBTQ people — people like me.
The same community that made me feel like a superstar often simultaneously made me feel broken, unloved and defective.
There are many people like me who suffer in silence, struggling to reconcile complicated ideas with thoughts, feelings and religious beliefs. There are many who feel misunderstood and heartbroken. We never know who around us might be wearing a mask.
But learning to be more inclusive and aware of others can make a meaningful difference.
When I wasn’t training, performing, washing giant cougar suits or locking myself in the library to study, I began spending an increasing amount of time working with a small group of students and members of the university administration to cultivate a more inclusive campus environment. I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment when our group received permission to hold the first ever public discussion panel regarding LGBTQ issues at BYU. Since then, LGBTQ inclusion has been highlighted in multiple addresses given by campus faculty and visitors. Most notable was Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who charged everyone to “listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing.”
While I am grateful for the progress, I feel we — as a community, state and country — still have a long way to go.
During my senior year, the university I proudly represented was ranked as the second-most LGBTQ-unfriendly college in the United States, based on student responses to a Princeton Review survey. That same year, a nationwide survey from GLADD — an LGBTQ media group — found that Americans had increased intolerance toward the LGBTQ community for the first time in four years. The percentage of respondents who said they are uncomfortable with having LGBTQ people in their places of worship, learning a family member is gay or having a child in a classroom with an LGBTQ teacher had all increased compared to previous years. I believe we can do better.
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.” As I integrate my sexual orientation with my church activity and faith in Jesus Christ, my future sometimes seems bleak and overwhelming. The family and friends who have shown me Christlike love and support, however, give me hope. I am grateful to everyone who used inclusive language or expressed empathy toward the LGBTQ community. They may not have known it, but in small ways they helped me feel a sense of belonging that I desperately needed. The LGBTQ community needs such visible love and support.
Since graduating, I have taken off both of the masks I used to wear. I miss being Cosmo like I’ve never missed anything before, and I will forever be grateful for the remarkable opportunities that came along with that role. At the same time, my newfound comfort with coming out to those around me has freed me from much of the shame and embarrassment that once seemed inseparable from my life. Doing so has allowed me to feel more fully the love of others. Doing so has allowed me to feel more fully the love of God.
Everyone deserves a life where exuberant, transformative experiences are not blanketed in sadness like mine often were. By actively showing love and acceptance, we can create a space in which people can remove their masks, no longer subject to the isolation and hopelessness that comes with feeling obliged to hide who they really are.