After another year of setbacks and success, of Duck Dynasty and DOMA and suicides and same-sex marriage, of Pride and Putin and Sochi and Sarah, of Daly and “Death to Fags” and the repetitious rhythms of human rights, it would appear that, looks aside, the business of being gay is indeed serious. After talking to GuySpy’s first Man for the Year, Ben Cohen, it’s clear that appearance is nothing more than a means to an end.
Cohen didn’t make many jokes during our conversation. Polite, friendly, and courteous to a fault, and taking time on a Saturday from a family who are often thousands of miles apart from Dad (his children could be heard in the background during our call), the former Rugby champion and current anti-bullying champion talked a lot about gay tolerance and very little about being the sexiest straight ally alive.
“I find it very surreal, I don’t mind it,” says Cohen, in one of his few quotes about his calendars and photo shoots and gay-icon status. “I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s a great way to break down boundaries. It works.”
Yes, it does. Cohen’s StandUp Foundation was formed in 2011, and has since made as many headlines for its anti-bullying awareness platform as it has for its leading man. Cohen, the 10th-highest point scorer in England Rugby, and member of the England National Team that won the World Cup in 2003, retired from the sport to form the foundation and has devoted his professional life to fighting anti-bullying, much of it aimed at the LGBT community.
If you’re looking for his motivation, start with family.
“My dad really inspired greatness in some way,” says Cohen on his father, Peter Cohen, who was killed in 2000 while helping an attacked victim at the nightclub he owned. “I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. You can wallow in what it is. I had to go out and play rugby. I was still making my name and I went off my game. An individual approached me and said ‘turn around your career or piss it away.’ It caused turmoil in the home and I turned it to good. It inspired me to go out and win the World Cup.
“It really has been the fuel for me,” he continues. “It’s a constant reminder of my dad. It’s a great legacy to leave. It’s a fantastic journey to leave. I think he would have been very proud.”
The proud father of twin girls, Cohen has his own legacy to leave and values to impart. “I look up to core values. It’s bloody simple. Be nice to people and hopefully they will be nice to you back. That’s my outlook on life. I learned a lot about being grounded from my sports, and not being above my station. It’s all about respect.
“I believe in letting kids be kids,” adds Cohen, in what becomes a progressively faster pattern of introspection. “They don’t care what gay is. They’re having fun and playing. It’s amazing how kids grow and things change. Where does that come from? You take your kids to pre-school, they don’t care about race, they don’t care about anything else; they want to paint. Where does that change? It’s frustrating. When I grew up, we didn’t care.
“People have to be aware. Camera phones, social media, getting bullied at school; it never ends. The danger is far greater, so the education has to be greater.”
In case you’re wondering why Cohen, a straight man, gets so much attention and accolades in the gay world, remember the axiom that change happens in the mainstream, and that we can’t do it alone.
“The power of the Foundation is that I’m straight and I’m from a champion sport, especially a very masculine sport,” says Cohen. “Bridging the gap between gay and straight can really break down stereotypes. It’s really the last phobia.”
On the Foundation’s goals, Cohen continues: “We educate teachers about gay people. That’s where you make changes. In the playground you hear ‘faggot,’ ‘homo,’; gay kids don’t really know what it means, they just associate it with something stupid. Sports, outside of the political arena, is the biggest force to make change. You should be judged on your talent and not your sexual orientation. It’s about redefining a champion. It’s about redefining sportsmanship.”
“That’s why I did Strictly Come Dancing,” Cohen points out, referring to his stint on the European Reality TV show, which Cohen did in order to bring attention to StandUp. “It really did work; me dancing around like a maniac. I stumbled very well.” Cohen even suggested they give him a male partner, should it help end the stigma of two men being intimate. “We talked about it, but it was never officially asked.”
Ask Cohen a lighter or basic question and there’s no particular change of tone or embellishment. “Finding the right person, honesty, truth, being friends” is his matter-of-fact response to the – somewhat obvious – question of what makes for a successful marriage, same-sex or otherwise.
Ask him about self-defense and he’s equally staid. “I don’t think violence is ever the key; I think you need to protect yourself, if it came to that.”
Then ask Cohen about injustice in the world and you’ll realize why he doesn’t waste time with extra space.
“That whole thing is a mind kill,” says Cohen on the Russia Winter Olympics. “I’m very disappointed with it all. I think it’s morally wrong that a society can be so backwards.
“I think that, as a gay person, getting to the Olympics, being out and proud and doing it for the gay community, that’s all the motivation you need. That makes the win so much sweeter. Being gay in Russia, and winning, will be the sweetest victory you will have in your lifetime. No one will judge you on being gay; they will judge you on being a world-class fucking athlete!
Cohen stops, just this once, and then starts a new beginning.
“That will be the motivation.”