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

Postcards from Mexico: At the bookstore

The latest missive from our correspondent in Mexico, Jesus Chairez:

MÉXICO CITY — I love going into small bookstores to find treasures in the Big Enchilada. It’ll be a sad day when we go all-digital. For instance, I walked into Bodet, a small orderly bookstore located in Col. Santa Mara la Ribera, a bohemian, on-the-rise neighborhood. As I browsed, a book title glanced from the corner of my eye grabbed my attention: Cocina par Gays — Cooking for Gays. How did they mean it? A cookbook of recipes for gay people, or a way for heteros to prepare meals for their queer guests? Santa Maria added it first gay bar six months ago, so was Bodet preparing for the gays in the neighborhood?

I asked Bernardo Plasencia, Bodet’s owner, what it meant. He giggled and said, “I think gays know how to cook, so I thought, a gay cookbook for heterosexuals that have gay friends coming over for dinner — cool. Mexicans being helpful and thoughtful. I couldn’t help but think, ‘But where is the cookbook for lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals or even a cookbook for gay Latinos, something I could give as Christmas presents to my gringo friends?’”

One salad recipe in the book caught my attention: Ensalada de besos, or “salad of kisses.” It’s made with asparagus, strawberries, cubes of cheese — your choice. Yep, something I know I would just love to eat.

Among the other recipes, nothing seemed unusual, just regular graceful appetizers, salads, soups, entrées and desserts. And as the cover says, “Recetas fáciles y creativa (creative and easy recipes).”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

As a birthday nears, everything old is new again

Looking back on the battles we’ve fought, and forward to the battles yet to come, as another year is marked off the calendar

HARDY HABERMAN  |  Flagging Left

Last week I stumbled across a picture of myself from the 1980s. Now that doesn’t seem so long ago to me — until I talk to friends who were born during that decade! And then I start to feel really old.

The photos pretty much sealed the deal. Who was that slender — or at least average-sized — guy with dark brown hair who looked like such a child? What’s worse, I was already in my 30s back then, already no spring chicken.

Age has its advantages. There is the whole “older and wiser” thing, and being older does give you a sense of perspective on minor problems that used to seem like life-altering crises when I was younger.

Today, I really don’t worry about missing a night out at the bar or making sure I am not wearing last season’s fashion. That just isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things.

What is important is something I paid little attention to as a young man: Quality of life.

That doesn’t mean much to someone in their 30s, since most have few problems aside from sports injuries or the occasional hangover. But to a gay man creeping into his 60s “quality of life” is very much “top of mind.”

First of all, I never expected to live this long. After all, many of my gay friends from the 1980s died during the first wave of AIDS. Watching all those men prematurely age and pass away really can put a damper on your expectations for the future.

Amazingly, I have survived and remain HIV-negative. Now what do I do?

If you are younger than me, here’s what you may have to look forward to: Aches. Muscles, bones and especially joints just don’t feel the same as they did. I don’t bound up stairs anymore, and the idea of dancing the night away seems almost ludicrous to me now.

First of all, my legs just don’t have the pep they used to have. Secondly, 61-year-old guys dancing to Lady Gaga just look like a cry for help.

Aside from dancing, I don’t have the desire to do as much as I used to. Part of that comes from being settled down with a loving partner for more than 16 years, and part is just from the whole age thing. The idea of a nice dinner at home and an evening of TV and conversation with my guy is much more appealing than hanging out in a bar or an evening of retail therapy.

Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Though we’ve had 30 years of education and research into AIDS/HIV, it is still with us and once again a growing problem for gay men. You’d think we would have gotten the message, but the younger generation has recklessly embraced barebacking and the older generation has forgotten that AIDS does not discriminate because of age.

It’s time to haul out the safer sex information that was squelched in the name of “abstinence only” and start educating again.

As the election cycle approaches, the same-sex marriage issue will continue to be on the forefront, while the real issue of full civil rights for LGBT citizens is pushed aside. I guess it’s not sexy enough to get media attention.

So I guess I will have to keep pounding away at the real equality issue until our politicians can get some kind of focus on the big picture.

And the whole idea of an aging generation of LGBT seniors has yet to hit the activists’ radar. Oh, there is a lot of talk about it, but who is going to assure that when I get old enough to need assisted care, my sexuality and my partner will not be ignored?

Guess there is still a lot to do. Time to get up off the couch and start getting busy.

Perhaps that will keep me from just being an old curmudgeon — like a kinky, gay Andy Rooney.

So time to get busy. If 60 is the new 40, then I fully intend to have an action-packed middle age.

Hardy Haberman, who will celebrate his 61st birthday on July 27, is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.

—  John Wright

Ex-Dallas Star Sean Avery comes out for marriage equality — but Big D doesn’t make his gay list

While he was with the Dallas Stars in 2008-09, Sean Avery was quick to make gay friends in Big D and even took his teammates to a Nieman Marcus fashion show.

Now that Avery is with the New York Rangers, he’s gone a step further — speaking out in favor of marriage equality in the video above.

In an interview about the video with The New York Times, Avery doesn’t reference his brief, controversial stint in Dallas:

“The places I’ve played and lived the longest have been in West Hollywood, Calif., when I played for the L.A. Kings, and when I moved to New York, I lived in Chelsea for the first four years,” Avery said in a phone interview. “I certainly have been surrounded by the gay community. And living in New York and when you live in L.A., you certainly have a lot of gay friends.”

—  John Wright

Your son’ll come out, tomorrow

SLEAZY STREET | Redneck Tenor Matthew Lord takes more potshots at the Bush Administration than gay people in his parody of ‘Annie.’

What’s a straight guy doing mocking a classic with the word ‘Trannie’? Making people laugh, that’s what

MARK LOWRY |  Contributing Writer
marklowry@theaterjones.com

It’s a beloved tale of musical theater: girl escapes orphanage, goes on quest for her parents, sings about tomorrow and ends up with a life of luxury and love — not to mention a spiffy red ’fro — with her new Daddy.

Make that two daddies. Trannie, a full-out parody of the aw-shucks family musical Annie, makes its world premiere this weekend in a tiny shed in the shadow of Grapevine’s squeaky-clean Main Street district.

The show follows the adventures of a transvestite (not transsexual) who leaves behind her prostitute pals and searches for the men who gave her up when gay couples were denied adoption rights. She sings in a nightclub called the Manhole, eventually discovering her dads, thanks to a cherished pearl necklace they once gave her.

Songs in the show include “I’m Gonna Come Out Tomorrow,” “It’s a Knocked-Up Life,” “S.T.D.” and “Sleazy Street,” which any musical queen will recognize as trash parodies of Annie hits. But despite being created by a heterosexual man, this is not a case of straight folks making fun of the T in LGBT. Nor of the G, L or B.

“I’ve been on the phone with my gay friends about this for a year, asking them ‘Can I write this?’” says Matthew Lord, the straight guy who created it. “I didn’t write this lightly. But I decided that if everybody wrote to whom they are, then nothing would ever get written.”

Lord grew up in San Francisco in the ’70s and ’80s, using his vocal talents to make a career of musical theater and opera. He has performed at the Met, originated a role in Andre Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire and, as Nero, made out with three countertenors nightly in a production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. But he’s best known as a founding member of the locally based 3 Redneck Tenors. That group, which made it to the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent in 2007, performs opera, Broadway and popular as trailer-dwelling mullet-heads, so satire is in Lord’s veins.

As for credibility with the gay community, he knows he has nothing to worry about.

“I was one of two straight men in the San Francisco Opera chorus in the ’80s, I would go to their birthday parties at The Stud,” he says. “I grew to have this incredible understanding of not understanding why the rest of the world [didn’t accept] homosexuality. Except for the sex part, I’m as gay as they come.”

Trannie was born from a casual conversation after Ohlook, Lord’s theater company, had performed Annie. The theater is a school that performs more traditional musicals, but also does a late-night series with shows like Evil Dead the Musical, Reefer Madness and The Rocky Horror Show (Ohlook’s two-time Rocky was Jeff Walters, now Clay Aiken’s boyfriend).

For anyone upset about the use of the un-P.C. title, it’s all in good fun.

“Trannie is the most sane character in the show,” Lord says, adding that it addresses issues like prostitution, homelessness and closed-minded politicians. “It makes fun of everything and it makes fun of nothing, you know what I mean? There’s nothing hurtful in it.”

Well, there are slams at the Bush administration, with a parody of the Annie song “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover,” substituting the lyrics for the policies of George W. Bush.

Will it be irreverent, filthy and touching? Yes, yes and that’s the plan. Will it be funny? Bet your bottom dollar.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Former Dallasite helps form Brownsville PFLAG chapter

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Brownsville became the 17th city in Texas with a Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays chapter on Monday, Jan. 3 when about 35 people attended the new group’s first meeting.

Brownsville City Commissioner Melissa Zamora was among those attending. She said she was there as an ally, invited by the group’s president, Yolanda Speece.

“The communication was amazing. There was lots of talk about our culture and the stigma gays and lesbians face,” Zamora said. “There was a high school girl who was there to support her two lesbian mothers. A mom was there to support her transgender child.”

She said the meeting was well organized, providing good reciprocal support, and was attended by people from around the county — and even from South Padre Island.

Zamora said she recently became more aware of LGBT issues when she read a story by a high school student describing his struggle.

“This is a very Hispanic community,” Zamora said, “and it’s something you don’t talk about in the Hispanic community.”

Zamora said she hopes to find a co-sponsor to put an item on the city agenda introducing the group to the community.

Speece said she decided to found the group because she always had gay friends. She found that along the border and the coast, the closest groups were in El Paso and Corpus Christi and she knew there was a need locally.

“I would hear people say things,” Speece said. “I’d take it in and I didn’t know how to respond. But there’s something wrong with using God to justify their hate.”

Speece said that over the past two years there have been four murders of gay men in Cameron County. One, Barry Horn, was executive director of the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.

The trial of the 19-year-old accused of Horn’s murder is set to begin in February. And Speece said she is sure defense attorneys are planning a “blame the victim” strategy.

“This needs to stop, Speece said. “We need to start educating the community, so I decided it’s time.”

Bobby Wightman-Cervantes, who helped the Dallas and Fort Worth chapters incorporate in the early 1990s, is involved in the new group’s formation. He said he was concerned that clashing personalities could kill the effort to organize and remembered similar concerns when P-FLAG formed in Dallas.

Wightman-Cervantes credited Dan and Pat Stone, two of the organizers of the Dallas group, with focusing on communication between parents with gay and lesbian children and a variety of allies when the group started.

Speece was also concerned about that, she said, and was very nervous as she began the meeting. But as people began talking to each other, she knew the new group was already working well. They were all there for one reason.

“Parents are supposed to protect their children,” she said.

P-FLAG Brownsville meets the first Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. All Souls UU Church, 124 Paredes Line Road, Brownsville. 956-433-3524.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 7, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens