Ben Cohen is a ruggedly handsome man who is not afraid to pose shirtless — thrilling many gay men around the world who may not know anything about rugby, but do admire a beautiful body.
Cohen, a U.K. rugby champion who is straight, married and has twin daughters, said he has no qualms with being a “gay icon.”
“That’s fine by me,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Northamptonshire, England.
But Cohen wants to use his notoriety in a way other professional athletes have not. His main cause off the pitch is helping LGBT youth, as well as eliminating homophobia from athletics.
“I’ve never seen a straight athlete do this before. I’m really passionate about this,” he said.
Cohen’s “Acceptance Tour 2011” makes its first stop in the U.S. in Atlanta next week. Several fundraising events are planned May 19-22 with proceeds going in part to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.
Cohen, who is a special guest presenter at the GLAAD Media Awards on May 14 in San Francisco, is also forming the StandUp Foundation to work to stop bullying.
“I have a big following, I have a voice, I want to use it,” he said. “I’m in a privileged position and I want to set a precedent. Being gay is not a disease, it’s not a choice.”
Cohen said he did not know his popularity among gay men until a French fan set up a Facebook page for him several years ago. Then Cohen started receiving emails from gay young people seeking advice and help.
“They don’t have family they can talk to. I wanted to take a stand and say you are not isolated,” he said. “I have two kids of my own and the last thing I want to think about is them feeling alone.”
The Atlanta Bucks Rugby Football Club is bringing Cohen to Atlanta. While there is no denying Cohen is a good-looking man, Gary Durden, president of the Bucks, said the rugby star’s message is more important than treating him like “a piece of meat.”
“I hope the message is not because he is a good looking guy. He deserves us to show the same respect to him as he shows to us as a community,” Durden said.
As a gay rugby club, the Atlanta Bucks is more than just a competitive sports team, Durden said.
“We are not just your run-of-the-mill gay sports league. I view this as an organization that can make a difference in the community. We have to go play straight teams … and hopefully when we get out there we change someone’s view on how they see us,” he added. “Over the last eight years we’ve made strides just by being who we are.”
Cohen is on a mission to stop bullying, especially of LGBT youth.
“I was never bullied in school,” he acknowledged. “But I can’t stand it. These [bullies] are very weak people. When people stand around just watching and laughing, I just can’t understand it.”
Top photo: International rugby superstar Ben Cohen brings his “Acceptance Tour” to Atlanta (publicity photo)