British rugby star Ben Cohen has become a hero to gays for his message of inclusion to sports fans the world over
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
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 [email protected] 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.