The Tea Party turns again to dirty tricks

Waxahachie Republican comes under fire from potential opponents over vote for anti-bullying bill and his connection with fundraiser for anti-bullying foundation

VIEWPOINTS-Pitts.Jim
TEA PARTY TARGET | Waxahachie Republican state Rep. Jim Pitts, left, talks with Waco Republican state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson during proceedings in the Texas Legislature in January, 2010. Members of the Tea Party are said to be targeting Pitts for defeat in 2012 after Pitts voted in favor of anti-bullying legislation this year, and reportedly hoped to use. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

David Webb
The Rare Reporter

Politics just don’t seem to get any nastier than they do in Texas, judging from a group of Texas Tea Party members’ apparent plans to exploit an appearance in Dallas by an internationally known anti-bullying champion.

The Tea Party members reportedly hope a planned appearance by British rugby star Ben Cohen this month at the Dallas gay rights parade can be used as a weapon against an incumbent Texas state representative in the Republican Primary.

The legislator, state Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, is scheduled to appear at a fundraiser for Cohen’s anti-bullying StandUp Foundation on Sept. 16, prior to the rugby player’s appearance as a VIP guest at the annual Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade on Sept. 19.

Cohen, 33, retired from professional rugby in May of this year to focus on the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation he created to combat homophobia and bullying. As an athlete he represented the brands Brive and Sale Sharks. He is married to a woman and has twin children.

In November 2000, Cohen’s father Peter Cohen was killed while protecting an attack victim at a nightclub he managed in Northampton, England. He died a month later from head injuries. Three men were found guilty of the violence.

Cohen — a World Cup winner who is straight but has many gay fans — has said in interviews the stories he heard from gay people about being bullied and feeling suicidal as a result of the violence they experienced drew him to the issue years ago.

The Dallas fundraiser, organized by a gay resident, was scheduled to take place at Pitts’ Highland Park home. It was relocated after published reports created controversy, and news of the uproar reached Cohen’s representatives.

The situation nearly derailed Cohen’s planned four-day visit to Dallas, according to the organizers.

The sports star’s representatives reportedly wanted no association with Texas’ volatile political climate, made infamous in recent years by ultra-conservative, anti-gay Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas Tea Party members learned about Cohen’s planned appearances when Dallas Voice published a report about them online.

At one point, the agitators who had heard about the report but couldn’t find it online, erroneously claimed that the newspaper had pulled the story in an effort cover up Pitts’ involvement with the fundraiser.

The Tea Party members antics came to light when they twice asked Joey Dauben, the publisher of the conservative Ellis County Observer website, to reach out to a Dallas Voice writer he knew for information.

In the last communication, the Tea Party members wanted to know if the newspaper or any other organization would be taking pictures at the fundraiser that they would be able to obtain for use against Pitts in a campaign.

The Tea Party members’ supporters reportedly have no plans to demonstrate at the event or crash it.

Pitts reportedly is being targeted by Tea Party members because he advocated the passage of anti-bullying legislation in Texas and voted in favor of two measures backed by Equality Texas. The legislator reportedly offered the use of his home for the fundraiser because of his interest in the issue.

Although Pitts backed the anti-bullying measures, he has been criticized by LGBT advocates for voting to ban LGBT resource centers from college campuses. That has left some observers puzzled by the Tea Party members’ tactics.

Dauben said that his criticism on his blog is more motivated by Pitts’ apparent residency in Dallas when he represents Waxahachie, rather than his participation in the fundraiser.

Two Texas Tea Party members, Linda Bounds and T.J. Fabby, have announced plans to oppose Pitts, who has been in office since 1992, according to the Ellis County Observer. It appears the two candidates and their supporters are willing to do just about anything to get one of them elected.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. Email him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

—  Kevin Thomas

Hot, hirsute

British rugby star Ben Cohen has become a hero to gays for his message of inclusion to sports fans the world over

MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN Cohen exemplifies the straight ally: Comfortable with his gay fans, upfront in his defense of gay rights and always willing to pose for a little beefcake photography.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Ben Cohen is a bit nervous about coming to Dallas Pride as its special parade guest, but not for the reason you may think. Growing up in the cool climes of the north of England, “the closest I have gotten to Dallas is the TV program,” he laughs. So the thought of being in the famous Texas heat frightens him a bit. “I’m gonna melt!” he exclaims from his home in Britain.

Heat is about the only thing that could frighten Cohen. As the second all-time best rugby union scorer, he’s a master of the organized mayhem of the sport of rugby. And he’s been famous for years as perhaps the planet’s most prominent straight athlete to put gay issues on his public agenda.

A lot of gay men first came to know Cohen when he released a series of beefcake calendars, showing his bulky, rugby-honed physique. Before long, he was the toast of the gay ether, screen-grabs of his hirsute chest and devilish grin being exchanged faster than juicy gossip. That’s about the same time Cohen found out what a huge gay following he had.

“We has this website and found out we had 37,000 people who were fans, but they were all men!” he says. “I’ve been with my wife since we were 16. We have very good gay friends and my cousin is lesbian, so I am very comfortable with my sexuality. I was getting a lot of emails saying how people in the gay community feel so isolated while trying to find themselves, this downward spiral where they have no one to turn to for help.”

He began talking publicly about his support for gay people, which only increased his fan base. It hit a saturation point earlier this year when Cohen announced his retirement from rugby so he could pursue his activism.

Cohen’s StandUp Foundation, which he heralds as “the world’s first foundation dedicated to raising awareness of … bullying,” is unique in being led by a straight man yet targeting the gay community, and for having as a secondary goal the eradication of homophobia in sports.

“I’m really trying to create a movement,” he says in a thick Northampton accent.

Cohen traces his passionate feelings on the subject to 2000, when his father was murdered while trying to break up a brawl in a nightclub. Cohen concentrated on his then-young rugby career, “to get my aggression out on the pitch.” It made him acutely aware of bullying and how those who “are perceived as different, whether gay or with red hair or overweight,” are victimized, he says.

While homophobia in sports is a focus for Cohen, he’s a vocal defender of rugby as an inclusive, gay-friendly sport.

“I know Gareth Thomas [the rugby star who came out in 2009], and he is a world-class player. His problem was accepting himself. He did the best thing all around when he came out and he’ll tell you that. He’s at the top of his game now. It shows rugby is an accepting sport — everyone I know was accepting and supportive of Gareth. I’ve never witnessed any homophobia in the sport, though I’m sure there is some.”

He’s also proud of the Bingham Cup, named after gay American rugby star Mark Bingham, who died in 9/11 as a hero of United Flight 93.

“I’ve done a massive amount of work in bringing the Bingham Cup to Manchester next year,” he says. “It’s an honor and a lovely way to show their love and respect [for a gay rugby player]. His legacy lives on.” Cohen also crows for how gay and gay-friendly rugby clubs have raised the quality of play overall, as well their role in increasing awareness of the sport in the U.S. He feels an obligation to give back.

“I’m in a privileged position in that I am a successful sportsman and have a big gay following. I know I can make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

“At the end of the day, we’re not about gay rights,” he says, but about the rights of people not to be victimized for whatever reason.

And if he has to endure 95 degree temperatures to do that? Well, that’s just the cost of doing the right thing.

Cohen hosts a StandUp fundraiser Sept. 16 featuring cocktails, appetizers and live music by Gary Floyd; email event@dallasstandup.com for invitation. On Sept. 17, Cohen will attend a Dallas Diablos match and practice, starting at 11:30 a.m.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens