Benjamin Christopher “Ben” Cohen, ex England rugby union player and fantasy boyfriend to tens of thousands is one of my LGBT heroes. I’ve chosen him for two reasons. First, Cohen is a very high profile example of a newish generation of heterosexual-identified men who don’t squirm with horror at the idea of being fancied by another man. I still recall a discussion in 6th form College when discussion of homosexuality came up. One of the butch male students spat “If any gay fancied me… first of all I’d throw up on his dress. Then I’d punch his face into hamburger.” (I think he now has a drag act under the name of Miss Amarillo Discharge.) My own subjective experiences indicate that there is a probable correlation between how unattractive these homophobic fellows are and how much they imagine that every gay man is secretly conspiring to seduce them. Ben, on the other hand, is the object of affections, but views it as a compliment. I Googled “Ben Cohen” (safe search off) and goodness, he’s posed for a lot of photographs in his underwear hasn’t he?
But helping to sell copies of Attitude magazine and beefcake calendars is not enough to make an LGBT hero. More pertinently, I’ve selected him for setting up The Ben Cohen Standup Foundation, dedicated to anti-bullying. In 2000, Ben’s father died of head injuries after being beaten in a nightclub when he tried to help an employee who was being attacked and so he knows all too well how violence can ruin lives. The Foundation gives grants to support work which stops bullying, helps people hurt by bullies or helps to remove homophobia from sport. Despite the sterling work of Dan Savage’s “it gets better” message, incidences of LGBT teenagers committing suicide and/or suffering physical or psychological violence are far too frequent. Sporting heroes in particular, who act as role models for so many people, can help to change attitudes, putting forward the message that it’s OK to be gay and it’s not OK to be a bully. There are too few people involved in macho sports like rugby and football (gay or straight) who will stick their neck out for us, and so Ben is a much-needed friend and hopefully at the forefront of a growing trend.