From what I understand, Ben Cohen is quite an accomplished sports figure. The 33-year-old Northampton native retired from rugby last May, after being one of the most celebrated figures in the game—if you Google the name, there’s something about him being the 10th-highest point scorer in English rugby history. He’s clinically deaf, and works to make sports more accessible to hearing-impaired athletes. Cohen is ruggedly handsome, married with twin girls, and probably allowed the luxe-life afforded to sex-symbol sports icons like David Beckham and Derek Jeter. With one added footnote…
Because what I know about Ben Cohen is that, post retirement, his professional focus is centered on the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, the organization he formed to fight homophobia and bullying. For me, an openly gay man who was a sissy in school and couldn’t play sports, and who was harassed and bullied and threatened and taunted growing up, to find camaraderie from someone on the other side, the jock side, is an anecdote of hope and a gift to kids all over the world.
“StandUp is now my passion in life,” says Cohen. “For years I have been a sportsman, and you need all your passion pushed towards your sport if you are going to be the best in your field. I achieved that and I wanted to look at something different.”
Cohen didn’t so much enter the ring to fight homophobia, as he found himself surrounded by those who needed help.
“I became aware some years ago that I had a gay following,” he says. “We received hundreds of emails from gay men who had been or were currently being bullied for their sexual orientation. Many were living half-lives. That’s not fair—that’s not right. I believe if you think something is not right you should do everything you can to change it.”
Cohen continues: “Then we became aware of a number of teenagers who had, sadly, taken their own life. Young people who felt that the only way out was to commit suicide. I was really shocked. In fact, it was on our national news in the UK, which is how I found out about it. I was in a position to do something—to make a noise. To stand up and say what I felt. Not only for gay people, but for anyone who is being bullied for being perceived to be different.”
While Cohen says he never witnessed homophobia in his years playing rugby, he knows it exists in sports. “It could all change in the UK,” he says, “when the first footballer (soccer) comes out. But at the moment that is not looking that likely—but you never know.”
“Sports is a great leveler,” he adds. “You should be judged on your performance; not whether you’re gay or not. It’s irrelevant.”
There are differences in the way gays are treated in the United States and Cohen’s home country, but the problem, he’s discovered, is universal. “I am aware that gay people have a harder time in some parts of the USA,” says Cohen. “We have found that each area is different. I’m really surprised at how unaccepting people are.”
Cohen says that, in the UK, “We have one very straightforward law—it is illegal to discriminate against anyone for any reason. It doesn’t stop opinion, of course, but it does protect people in their jobs or where they live. I have learned that in some states in the U.S. you can lose your job or be thrown out of your apartment for being gay. Of course, in some countries you can lose your life. That is terrible!”
Cohen grew up around gay people, and says that he “was taught to accept everyone for who they are. I didn’t take a lot of notice.” When I asked Cohen why he thinks bigotry exists, his answer was simple. “They don’t understand it,” he says. “Many people think being gay is a choice. Once someone understands that is not the case, it should be far easier for them to accept it.”
Unless you’re hiding under a gay rock, or sticks and stones, you know that Cohen’s half-naked images are posted all over the Internet, that he keeps making beefcake calendars, and that he even auctioned an autographed jock strap to a British charity. It’s safe to say that a huge chunk of his fan base are men, but, unlike the “Am I maybe a little bit gay?” jokes that dominate hetero American movies and TV shows, he doesn’t see any need to flirt with the issue.
“It’s flattering to think that people like you, for whatever reason,” says Cohen. “But I’m pretty grounded. My wife and twin daughters make sure I stay grounded as well. I may be popular with gay men when I am working, but at home I’m a husband and a Dad. That’s a leveler!” On why some straight men have issues when other men are attracted to them, Cohen says, “Maybe it says more about them than anything else.”
As for that male flirting he gets on the road? “People are just nice to me. Is that flirting? I don’t know.”
Personally and professionally, Ben Cohen’s life has changed tremendously this past year, and, on some levels, it’s just starting. On StandUp, Cohen says, “I want to create cultural change in as many places as possible to end senseless bullying and to change attitudes and minds. It’s a big task and I’ve only just started, but our foundation is growing daily and already we are making a difference.”
The rest is where he ends the interview. “I want to see my twins grow up into healthy, happy young ladies. Just like any Dad would.”
If you read more about Cohen, you’ll discover that his dad, Peter, died in 2000 of massive head injuries, after trying to break-up a bar-room brawl. Whether that affected Ben’s decision to fight another kind of destructive battle is not for me to say; nor can I speculate as to whether fighting for justice is inherited. What I do know, again, is that at heart, each one of us has the same goal.
Fore more information on Ben Cohen, visit his website.