You may remember seeing a viral video of Brigham Young University's mascot Cosmo the Cougar dancing with its cheerleaders, the Cougarettes. Now we're seeing Charlie Bird, the man behind the mask.
"Masks had kind of become my thing throughout my BYU university experience," Bird said.
But now the man who once wore the iconic cougar suit is taking off the masks.
This week, Bird came out in an op-ed, revealing that while he was secretly Cosmo the Cougar, he was also grappling with another secret.
"I feel completely free right now," Bird told KTVX. "I don't have to lie to my roommates about why I'm not at the basketball game. And I also don't have to worry about what they might think of me if they found out I was gay."
Growing up in Missouri as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Bird was taught that acting on his feelings was a sin.
That was reinforced at Brigham Young University, which has a strict honor code prohibiting premarital sex, especially homosexuality.
"Hiding made me in this constant state of, I think, almost paranoia," says Bird.
But Bird says the BYU community made him feel like a celebrity at the same time.
"When I put on the Cosmo mask, I've been taken up by fans in the football stadium and crowdsurfed against my will," he said. "This same community, this religious LDS Christian community that loved Cosmo and loved me when I was Cosmo, was the same that was creating -- whether intentionally or not -- this environment that made me feel defective."
Bird was wildly popular as Cosmo. That viral video has almost 5 million views.
But behind the mask, Bird felt alone at a school that was once named by the Princeton Review as one of the most LGBTQ unfriendly universities in the nation.
"I was doing it alone and and believing, honestly believing, that I was the only person like me," Bird said. But now, "I don't feel like I have to be either religious or gay, I feel like I'm Charlie and I'm religious and I'm also gay."
While he gives credit to BYU for making big strides in outreach for gay students, Bird also says there are still gay church members and gay students who feel alone.
"I feel like there's a lot of misunderstanding surrounding this topic and there's a lot of people who feel isolated and alone," he said.
But for Bird, it's time to rise and shout that this cougar is out.
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