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Ben Cohen

His StandUp foundation has become a major force for good in the lives of LGBT students. Now, Ben Cohen speaks to Metrosource about how he went from scoring rugby goals to fighting for kids’ rights.

If you’re a fan of international sports, you might know Ben Cohen as a British rugby star. If you’re an admirer of brawny, hairy-chested men, you may recognize him from his series of sexy pin-up calendars. But if you’re a member of the gay community, you’re probably most familiar with him as the founder of the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, the organization he created to combat homophobia and bullying among schoolkids.

So how did this straight sportsman become a champion of gay kids’ rights? In some ways, the gay community chose Cohen. “While I was playing rugby, I realized that I had a gay following,” Cohen tells me. About six years ago, it was brought to his attention that — of his tens of thousands of Facebook fans — a vast majority of them were gay men. Cohen didn’t mind that these fans might like him more for his pecs than his performance on the field, but it did plant the seed of an idea: He wanted to do something to give back. “To be able to say, ‘Look guys, there’s more to me than — and I can’t believe I’m saying it — looks and a hairy chest,’” he says.

In other ways, Cohen’s life story had already made him an ideal individual to stand up against aggression: In 2000, Cohen’s father Peter was fatally injured while protecting someone who was being attacked at a nightclub. Cohen himself is also no stranger to being different; he is clinically deaf, suffering from what he tells me is about 50-percent hearing loss. (However, he also tells me that Elton John — a great supporter of the StandUp Foundation — also helped Cohen get set up with corrective hearing aids that have greatly improved the situation. “Bless him,” says Cohen of John. “He’s a very special guy.”)

In addition to a robust gay fan base and a personal aversion to intolerance, the height of Cohen’s fame coincided with the problem of gay teen suicide rising to the cultural forefront. So Cohen chose to begin speaking out against bullying — especially when it came to gay kids. “I didn’t do it to get any awards. I did it because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to stop people killing themselves because of bullying, and I wanted to eradicate homophobia in sport,” he says. “And ultimately, I want to bring my kids into a better world.”

The StandUp Foundation has flourished dramatically in the past year, fueled in part by Cohen’s decision to retire in May 2011 from the sport that made him a star. “I could have gone on playing,” Cohen explains, “but I wanted to … really give it 100 percent and create a brand to run alongside the foundation — to give it a longevity to outlive me. We wanted to create [something] like Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG or Bono’s (RED).”

One of the ways that Cohen has helped fill the foundation’s coffers has been through strategic partnerships — in particular with sports apparel titan Nike. “Nike wants to be seen [fighting] homophobia,” Cohen says. “They’re using me and the foundation to do that, which is fantastic, and I’m incredibly honored.” On a practical level, the partnership with Nike means that you can find StandUp-branded T-shirts (and other products whose sale supports the foundation’s efforts) in Nike stores. But Nike’s support is also significant when it comes to spreading StandUp’s anti-bullying message. “Nike is huge and powerful, especially within sports,” says Cohen. “So, they’ll make sure they get their athletes’ support in the cause and in the issues of being fair.”

Travel has also become an essential part of Cohen’s work — perhaps most significantly, his 90-day “Acceptance Tour” throughout the United States, which included stops in Atlanta, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Part of the tour focused on reaching out to LGBT community organizations and connecting to rugby fans in different parts of the U.S. For example, his Atlanta visit included pub meet-and-greets and a host of activities with local gay rugby team, the Atlanta Bucks.

“Every place brings a different challenge,” Cohen says of the different kinds of receptions he met while traveling across the country. Sometimes, Cohen says, he’s frustrated by how some of the communities he’s visited in the States have misinterpreted his message as political, even though he sees himself as simply promoting human decency.

Nevertheless, he said that a variety of reactions is to be expected when one considers the sheer size of the U.S. “Europe is diverse in many different ways,” Cohen points out. “How many times can you fit Europe into America? It must be half a dozen times.”

But Cohen hopes to take his message even further — to Australia, Africa and China. He has already brought it to the high seas: In September, Cohen took the Acceptance Tour along on the Source Events gay cruise from Rome to Venice, where he spoke, posed for pictures and hung out with fellow cruisers as they made their way through Capri and Taormina (Sicily), Kotor (Montenegro), Dubrovnik and Hvar (Croatia). Also among the trip’s featured guests was iconic gay novelist Armistead Maupin, who has described Ben as “heroic in every sense of the word.”

As a person who gained at least part of his notoriety as a sex symbol, it makes sense that Cohen continues to use photography as a tool to get his message out and raise funds for the StandUp Foundation. This includes an annual calendar, which has featured him shirtless in settings from locker rooms to lounging in bed, tangled up in his sheets. But, Cohen says, it doesn’t necessarily help to walk into a photo shoot thinking: I am going to be sexy.

“I just go in and be me,” he says. “I’m a down-to-earth guy, and I just try to [move] on with getting the photo shoot done half the time.” However, he does say that he takes mental and physical steps to prepare for any given photo shoot. “For example, we’ve got an underwear line launching [this] spring; so I know I’m going to be in underwear,” he says. “You have to understand what you’re doing, and it has to be done tastefully,” says Cohen.

It’s almost impossible to mention Cohen without bringing up another major British sportsman who also famously embraced the adulation of his gay fans: David Beckham. “That guy’s done fantastically well,” says Cohen. “I admire David Beckham.” Though, when pressed as to which of them is the gay community’s favorite straight British sportsman, he laughs off the question, saying, “I didn’t think there was a contest.”

Ultimately, Cohen doesn’t have a definite explanation for what initially drew his gay fans to him over other sports stars, but he’s immensely grateful that they were. “If it wasn’t for the gay community finding me attractive in the first place,” says Cohen, “I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this.”

Raising funds and awareness are only part of the StandUp Foundation’s efforts. Cohen is also personally traveling to schools and talking to kids. For example, when Cohen visited Texas to be the grand marshal of Dallas Pride, he ended up bringing together two very different groups at one school.

Cohen was in the midst of a Q&A session with a gay-positive student group called True Colors. “The interesting thing about True Colors — it was 14 women and one gay chap,” Cohen says. The kids let him know that their group was not well respected by their fellow students. Cohen asked them, “Who would give credibility to your organization?” The kids named two of the school’s star athletes, and Cohen decided to meet with them.

So Cohen decided to meet with these particular athletes — along with a group of their fellow teammates. “I’m not here to point fingers,” he explained to them, “but as a sportsman, you need to know how to be a role model whether you like it or you lump it.”

By the time Cohen finished with them, the school’s sports teams had agreed to wear not only the StandUp Foundation’s patches on their jerseys but also patches supporting the True Colors group. He hopes the patches will help them continue the conversation. “We are leaving that little bit of legacy behind,” he says.

You can support Cohen at standupfoundation.com

By Paul Hagen
Photography by Edwin Santiago

There’s even more great Ben Cohen content in the print and iPad editions of Metrosource. To get your own print copy, go to metrosource.com/subscribe/

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Comments (6)

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