SALT LAKE CITY — Cosmo the Cougar stopped by the newsroom this week to reflect on the seismic impact the op-ed he wrote and published in the Deseret News on Tuesday has had on many who have felt like they don't belong.
In his case, his fame as Cosmo the Cougar (he's now a former Cosmo working in New York) went far beyond the BYU Provo campus when he teamed with the Cougarettes to perform dance routines that went viral. He became known as the best mascot in America, serving as a furry ambassador for the university.
Readers of his op-ed now also know him as Charlie Bird, the man behind the Cosmo mask, and a man who carried the secret of his sexuality with him throughout his time at BYU — a second more uncomfortable mask in addition to the more famous one.
"I felt like I was trying to carve out this path alone and was seeking for answers and support for so long and feeling like I was the only one like me," he told me, as we discussed his journey Friday at the Deseret News.
"Once I started meeting other people who were like me, I would see this all the time where people felt isolated and marginalized and alone and that they didn't have a voice. As Cosmo the Cougar, I was, for lack of a better term, I was pretty famous."
The op-ed struck a chord. Charlie was famous, but no one really knew him. He was popular, yet felt entirely alone. The op-ed, quite simply, was a way to help people — all people, whether they are gay, straight or in some way marginalized.
He and I sat down in my office, turned on the audio recorder and had a conversation. Here then is a condensed and lightly edited version of that exchange.
Doug Wilks: You said "people like me" as you described your situation. Who are you referring to there? Are you speaking of gay people, or are you talking about struggling people? Are you talking about members of The Church of Jesus Christ who are struggling with sexual orientation?
Charlie Bird: I feel like in a way I'm the apex of all three of those groups. I think in the article, this line was toward the LGBTQ people I noticed. I mean, being at BYU and having classes and conversations in the locker room or around campus, a lot of times there would be jokes that were made and things that were said that were really derogatory and hurtful and very insensitive toward the LGBTQ community. And so that's what I meant by "people like me," people that were different. And I think it's very important to drive home the point that no one chooses to be LGBTQ. It's not a choice. I firmly believe that and in a way it feels like when people say things or are careless with their jokes or words it kind of is a shot at your existence in a way.
DW: Labels are difficult to get past. It seems like your article was able to get past the labels. So as you look at BYU and what it needs to do next, what would you suggest?
CB: I'm very grateful for the progress that BYU has made. Liz Darger at BYU athletics has been amazing. She's worked with NCAA Common Ground and that hit home for me because I was part of athletics and very involved in the athletics scene. I was part of this working group last year that was able to hold this forum that caused a lot … I mean it was huge, so many people came out for it.
DW: So had you come out at that point?
CB: I was very much still in the closet. A few close friends, my roommates maybe. But what BYU can do better is what you're asking. I don't think I have any position to talk about policy change or rule changing or anything like that. … But I think I would like to see a grassroots movement of people actively trying to show support.
I remember I was in the JFSB on the fourth floor and I walked past a teacher's office and she had a sticker next to her room number that said, "You are loved" with a rainbow flag and I was shocked. And it was like little things like that meant the world to me because I thought there's other people that could love me here. And I ended up setting an appointment with her, complete stranger, came out to her, told her some of my story and we cried together. … I had to look really hard to find evidence of support and people who were trying to understand. And I would love if Brigham Young University was a place where gay students and LGBTQ students did not have to actively seek out resources and try really hard to find groups or support or teachers or professors and other students that they could feel comfortable being themselves around and in sharing this secret that feels like a heavy weight.
DW: Have you been asked to be an ambassador for BYU?
CB: I think I'm turning into a natural ambassador.
DW: Do you embrace that role?
CB: I do embrace the role because I feel like it's a role that needs to be played. … I feel humbled and prepared because of the opportunities I've had and someone needs to play that role. And I'm happy to help. I want to.
DW: Has the university reached out to you this week?
CB: Oh yeah, definitely. In fact, before I even published the article I had run it through multiple administrators, I ran it through my coach and other past and present Cosmos, just to make sure. You know, I wanted support and their blessing and I would never want to do anything that paints a bad light. I don't want to poke, I want to build. So BYU has been extremely supportive of me. … It's opened a lot of conversation on campus.
DW: It seems like the theme that you brought up at BYU extends beyond an LGBTQ issue. Did you think about that as you looked at this?
CB: Absolutely. And actually being from sort of a marginalized minority group has really increased my empathy and understanding of different minority groups.
DW: Do you have people who are critical of you? I mean, there are some in the LGBTQ community who might be critical of BYU and say you need to be able to express yourself any way you want to. You can end up being ostracized from both worlds.
CB: I think criticism is a part of life and for anyone to tell me I should be living the way I want to live, I am. That's exactly what I'm doing.
DW: It sounds like you're getting support from both camps.
CB: I am getting support from both camps. … I think it's time that we stop limiting ourselves to black and white thinking. We're complex creatures and I feel like, in a way, to reduce my experience to I'm a member of the church or I'm gay really inhibits growth. And I'm excited that I've somehow been able to kind of break that barrier and I hope that other people can see that they don't have to be defined by labels and that can just be themselves.