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

Lady of leather

Dallas chef Synn Evans took off her chef’s coat and put on a cowhide vest on her way to being crowned Ms. Texas Leather

LEATHER MAMA | Synn Evans is a long-standing member of the leather community, but won the first event she ever entered last week: Ms. Texas Leather. (Photo courtesy Oblivion Images)

JENNY BLOCK  | Contributing Writer
lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

I want this.”

That’s how Synn Evans felt about the Ms. Texas Leather title from the minute she decided to compete. As of Saturday night, that desire became a reality.

She’s in full regalia for our interview, including black leather vest, chaps and her medal. She sports a jet black Mohawk, devilish grin and blue eyes with a gaze as intent as it is kind. Ms. Texas Leather is not a beauty contest, but it’s hard to imagine her looks didn’t help her case.

Evans has been a member of the leather community since 1996, when her best friend introduced her to the scene at a party.

“I was introduced to good people and taken by the hand because of connections. It’s a huge networking system,” she says. “No matter where you travel, you have a place to walk into and fit in, and whatever turns you on is all right. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s like you just know something you just belong with.”

Still, her entry last week marked her first leather competition — surprising, considering how she lights up when she talks about leather:

“I love the way it looks. I love the way it smells. I love the way people dress in it. It’s not for everyone and I get that. But I think that if people were introduced to it in a proper way, it would be hard to walk away from. It’s exciting.”

Her love of leather is in no way hampered by the fact that many see the scene as the domain of gay men. “The leather scene is dominated by men,” she acknowledges. “It was started by men. Women were there, but it was a separate entity. Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, it started to take off and the feminist movement was really intertwined in it.”

Despite its male roots, Evans says she doesn’t feel any disrespect from her brothers in leather. “I don’t think there’s a problem for women in the community. Men appreciate having their own space just like I appreciate having the women’s space. I’ve never had any trouble. I get along very well with the gay male community. I’ve never had anyone be negative in any way, which is one of the reasons I love the leather community so much. It’s really just a matter of visibility.”

It’s that very issue that helped Evans to win the title. “Visibility is part of my platform, for women in the community to be seen and heard,” she says. Evans also hopes to improve access to the community for those who are hearing impaired, an issue close to her own heart as her last partner was hearing impaired and her current partner, Lillith Grey, is a sign language interpreter and instructor, as well as Gulf Coast Leather Woman of the Year.

“When I announced I was running for this title, [Former IML champ] Jeffrey Payne said to me, ‘It’s going to be a title family now.’ Next I’m going for International Ms. Leather.”

Evans says prepping for the competition was no easy task, between writing a speech, preparing for the interview, researching the judges and preparing a fantasy scene (a four-minute-long performance). Of these, it was the interview, Evans says, that really had her nervous.

“What was so stressful was that they could ask anything — personal, professional, family, anything — like, ‘What does leather mean to you,’ or ‘How do you plan on raising money for the title [for travel]’ or ‘How will your students feel about this?’” She stops and smiles. “They would think it was cool.”

In her vanilla life, Evans is a chef instructor at a community college and a private chef for various events (including for Glory Hole, her partner’s fetish production company; see sidebar). When Evans goes off to her professional gigs, her Mohawk gets collapsed and her jewelry comes off  as her chef’s coat goes on. “In my professional life, I try to be neutral,” she says, although some things, like her tattoos, she keeps on display “because they’re me.”

“Transitioning back and forth between the worlds really isn’t that hard. Like everyone else, you have a time and place for everything in your life. You always find a time and place for things that are important to you and I would never give up the leather community for anything in the world. It’s incredibly liberating to be with people who don’t care if you want to be pierced or don’t want to wear clothes or whatever.”

She laughs. “It’s all about pleasing yourself, realizing what you like and what you want and doing it … as long as it’s safe.”

It’s clear that the win means far more to Evans than just bragging rights.

“This title is a huge opportunity for women in the leather community here in Dallas and across the state. Part of my job as titleholder is to get people to come out. This title has the opportunity to really give the issues and the community the visibility it needs.”

Then she leans back, takes in the moment with a slow breath, and smiles. “It’s pretty cool.”

Indeed.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 2, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens