As Cosmo the Cougar, he danced his way into fans’ hearts, all the while concealing his face, and a secret that he is only now ready to share: Charlie Bird is gay.

Bird wore the Cosmo the Cougar mascot costume from 2015 until 2018, and became the face of Brigham Young University — one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of NCAA member schools with policies that target LGBTQ students.

“I kept the best part of my life a secret from everyone around me by wearing a mask,” Bird wrote, in a heart-wrenching op-ed in Tuesday’s Deseret News. “When I was Cosmo, I felt invincible.” And he said that costume shielded him from having to show his true identity, something he came to realize was not limited to mascots.

“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.”

Bird explained why he waited until after graduation to come out to the world.

“As scary as it seemed to dance in front of 60,000 people,” wrote Bird, “an even scarier thought often crept into my mind — ‘If they knew who I really was, would they hate me?’”

In Bird’s world, “the same community that made me feel like a superstar often simultaneously made me feel broken, unloved and defective.”

And he was a superstar. He performed live on ESPN at the College Football Awards, and NBC Sports dubbed 2017 to 2018 the “Year of the Mascot” in honor of Cosmo’s viral influence. Cosmo’s dance video netted hundreds of millions of views.

His reasons for hiding his orientation will no doubt hit home for many,

“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.”

Bird attended BYU after serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He certainly was not the only closeted gay student; Andrew Evans revealed in his memoir, excerpted on Outsports, how his college roommate turned him in after seeing him kiss another man, and how BYU forced him to choose between immediate expulsion or reparative therapy. And then there was “Michael,” an anonymous BYU football player, track star and closeted gay student who didn’t realize until senior year that keeping his secret had left him without a single friend on campus.

In Bird’s senior year, he decided to work to change BYU’s ranking as the second-most LGBTQ-unfriendly college in the United States, based on student responses to a Princeton Review survey.

“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,” he wrote.

Charlie Bird

Since graduating, Bird says he’s taken off both masks, and misses being Cosmo like nothing else he’s ever felt. And his faith has helped him navigate this new path.

“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.”