On this week’s episode of This is the Gospel, three storytellers share what it means to them to “act well thy part.” Among these guests is Charlie Bird, who speaks of his wrestle with coming out as gay to his brother, Sam, for fear of damaging their close relationship. But as they were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro together, something clicked. “I have to tell him,” Charlie realized. Read Charlie and Sam’s account of what happened next.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
As we’re walking, we’re sweating. We’re breathing heavy. And it’s been probably 35–45 minutes, where I’m just focusing on the trees. He’s like, “What are you thinking about?” I was like, “Uh oh, he caught me off guard.” I wasn’t expecting it. So, I just kind of went along with what I was trying to do, which looking back, it was silly, but I was like, “Oh, you know, just the trees.” So, I start describing what I was trying to see in the trees . . . which is true, like, my goodness, they were beautiful. But I’m trying too hard.
Everything was normal. And then all of a sudden, Charlie started talking about the trees, but like, in a really weird way. I know Charlie, and I know he loves trees, right? And I know Charlie always loves to talk about the elements and everything working in sync, and blah, blah, blah. But at this point, I’m like, “All right, bro, I get it. The trees are nice.” It’s like, this is 45 minutes of us talking about trees right now. So, I’m done. I’m like, “Okay, what is actually going on?”
And he’s like, “Dude, why are you being weird? What’s actually up? Because I can tell there’s something up.” And I got the coming out feeling.
So, it’s funny, people ask me a lot like, “What does it feel like to come out?” I think coming out is one of the most courageous things anyone can do. Because it’s scary, you know? That potential rejection is a really hard thing to face, especially with someone you care about. I compare the coming out feeling to the way someone might feel if they had to speak unprepared in front of a group of like, 100,000 people.
Or, in fact, the closest thing I’ve ever got to it is the feeling of when the Spirit is telling you that you need to bear your testimony on a fast Sunday, but magnified by some exponential amount, because it’s just so . . . it’s this release that has to happen, and you know you have to do it. But no part of you wants to stand up and walk to the pulpit, and you’re not sure that your legs will support you or you don’t know if you’re going to pass out or throw up.
So here I am taking that walk to the pulpit, as I’m about to speak and tell my brother that I’m gay. And I started hyperventilating. Which, it’s so funny because I’m an athlete, and I am a gymnast, and I’m always so in control of my body and my body’s reactions to things. I started breathing so heavy and I was like verging on a panic attack hyperventilating. I was so nervous to tell him.
I remember he made this joke. He was like, “Well, for being the world’s greatest mascot, you’re sure not in very good shape.” And he’s taunting me because he’s like, “Haha, I’m in better shape than you.” And then I was like . . . actually couldn’t breathe. So, I got it out, I muttered out, “It’s not the mountain.”
I remember his face changed, his brows knit together, and he got really concerned, and he was like, “Oh, are you okay?” He’s afraid I’m actually going to pass out because I probably was about to. And he was like, “Hey, there’s a fallen log right over there. Give me your bag, I’ll take it over there, and we can rest for a while and get some food. I have a Snickers bar. You should eat it.” I’m watching my brother just have so much love for me. I was like, “I have to tell him.”
He says, “If it’s not the mountain, what is it?” I said “Sam,” and I waited for a while.
I said, “I’m gay.”
He said, “What?”
And I said, “I’m not attracted to girls.” I kind of defined it for him. I wanted him to understand what I was saying. I said, “I’m gay, Sam. I’m attracted to guys.”
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At first, I thought it might have been a joke because . . . I was confused. I thought Charlie was straight, totally 100 percent straight. So, I was kind of trying to figure out how he could be gay. Because in my mind, it wasn’t an option. My mind directed to just, “Okay, then what about this girlfriend? Or what about whenever you told me this or that?”
Honestly, at this point, I still wasn’t sure how this conversation was going. I was like, “Is this a successful coming out or not? Because we haven’t really gotten anywhere.” He was just confused.
I started asking him questions, and I asked him, I was like, “Isn’t it a choice to be gay? Like, why’d you choose this?” I remember him telling me, “Why would I choose this? You don’t think . . .” and he went off on a rant, and it was emotional.
He said, “You don’t think I want to get married in the temple, Sam? You don’t think I want all these things that we all want?” The blow that hit me the hardest was [when] he said . . . he served a mission hoping that if he served well, and if he served “perfectly,” as he said, God would take his “gayness” away from him. And that’s when it really clicked for me that he didn’t choose it. Being gay is not a choice. There’s so much more than what meets the eye.
And I felt horrible. I felt horrible, because I had said a lot of things, very derogatory things, about gay people. So, I apologized for all the things I had told him, all the things I had said, just all my misconceptions. It was tough. I still didn’t really know what to do.
So I said, “But what are you going to do? Because I don’t know what to do, so what are you going to do?” And when I asked him what he was going to do, I meant it in a way of like . . . a futuristic way, as in, “Okay, what are you going to do with your life and with everything that we’ve been taught, and everything that we know, inside the Church, even outside the Church, just like social norms?”
So, the question I asked was probably kind of a tough question to answer. And it was. He just said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And whenever someone you love so much doesn’t know what to do, I think in any circumstance it’s hard. I just told him like, “Bro, I don’t care what you do. I’m going to be here for you. I love you. You’re my older brother. We’re tight. We’re cut from the same cloth. Nothing will change. Nothing will change between our relationship.” It was an emotional moment. We embraced. We started crying.
He explained to me that he had so much faith and love for me, and that whatever I chose he knew would be the right thing for me, and that he would support me no matter what. At this point, I’m speechless because I don’t think there could have been possibly a better reaction. I’m coming to him with this huge weight—something I was so nervous to tell him. And he said, “I love you. And I trust you.” Those were my two biggest fears—that his love for me would change, and that he wouldn’t trust me. And I know he was inspired to say that.
So we sat on this log, we shared a Snickers bar, and we just talked. I told him I’m sorry. That’s mostly what happened . . . was me just apologizing maybe for 30 minutes. I just told him I was sorry. He forgave me really quickly . . . said, “It’s okay. You didn’t know, you didn’t know.” But I still felt bad.
The worst part was that he couldn’t trust me to tell me before, when it was harder. And that’s important. I’m glad he came out to me whenever he felt like he was comfortable to, but I wished that I could have done something before to make him feel comfortable.
So about 20 minutes later, we’re sitting on that same mossy log, and my dad and my little sister and the trail guide came up and caught up to us. Honestly, they were kind of mad. They were like, “Where have you been?” And we’re like, “Oh, we were just feeling it.” It was just so funny to know that me and Sam were the only ones who knew that we just had this incredible spiritual bonding experience.
My dad and my sister Hannah are like, “You’re so annoying. What are you trying to prove?” We were joking with them, and we’re like, “Dad, you’re just mad because we’re so much faster than you, you old man.”
Sam’s words were still ringing in my head when he said, “This doesn’t change anything.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, nothing changed. This feels normal.” But at the same time, everything changed, because now all of this weight that I was carrying up this mountain emotionally is gone. Now, we can just focus on the physical weight. How great is that? That’s the reason I’m here in the first place. I love a physical challenge.
To listen to the rest of the story, click here.
Lead image courtesy of Charlie and Sam Bird
Charlie Bird—the viral face of BYU during his years as Cosmo the Cougar—made waves across the nation when he came out and revealed to BYU fans that he is gay. Now, in Without the Mask, Bird reflects on how his identity has strengthened his testimony and how he views his sexual orientation in conjunction with his faith in Jesus Christ. Available now at DeseretBook.com.