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.”
The last bastion?
Professional sports may be among the last bastions where homophobia is still prevalent — accepted by athletes and coaches who make millions of dollars from salaries, ticket sales and endorsements.
But, perhaps, the times are changing.
After Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was seen on national TV shouting “fucking faggot” at a referee during an intense game against the San Antonio Spurs on April 12, the National Basketball Association fined him $100,000.
When Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell shouted anti-gay slurs at San Francisco Giants fans on April 23 at San Francisco AT&T Park, he was put on administrative leave for two weeks without pay, ordered to take sensitivity training and also fined an undisclosed amount of money by Major League Baseball.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig released a statement on the McDowell incident, making it clear in no uncertain terms that the alleged behavior was unacceptable.
“Major League Baseball is a social institution that brings people together and welcomes all individuals of different races, religions, genders, national origins and sexual orientations into its ballparks. Conduct by people associated with MLB that shows insensitivity to others simply cannot and will not be tolerated,” Selig said.
National gay groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called for the professional sports leagues in the Bryant and McDowell instances to take action — and they were heard. Bryant spoke on the phone with HRC President Joe Solmonese to personally apologize for his action.
Georgia Equality also called on the Atlanta Braves to take local action. The LGBT advocacy group sent a letter April 28 to Braves President John Schuerholz asking for three things: Firm disciplinary action, reappraisal of sensitivity training for all employees of the club and for the Braves to work to help prevent bullying in schools.
Gay leaders are particularly upset because this is not the first time the Braves have been accused of anti-gay comments or actions.
In 1999, then-Braves pitcher John Rocker was quoted in a Sports Illustrated profile explaining why he would never play in New York. Rocker noted that he would have to ride the subway and sit next to “some queer with AIDS,” among others. Rocker was suspended 14 days after an arbitrator cut the original suspension in half. His $20,000 fine was also slashed to $500.
In 2004, another Braves pitcher at the time, John Smoltz, compared gay marriage to bestiality in an AP story about gay athletes. “What’s next? Marrying an animal?” Smoltz asked.
In 2006, the Atlanta Braves also angered the LGBT community when the team sponsored the first “Faith Day” in Major League Baseball. At the game, Focus on the Family representatives handed out pamphlets for the group’s Troubledwith.com website, which features anti-gay content, including stating homosexuality is a developmental problem and comparing gay people to pedophiles.
In response to the backlash from gay fans, the Braves disinvited Focus on the Family from participating in future Faith Day events.
“Beyond individual punishments, the Braves need to take a moment to look at themselves and consider what team culture they want to engender,” said in a press release demanding local action.
“What is the face they want to reflect to themselves and to their community? Where is the local action stemming from the team that started this firestorm?”
Braves president to meet with gay group
Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham told the GA Voice May 10 that he has received an invitation from the Braves to meet with Schuerholz next week, indicating the team is at least interested in hearing what LGBT activists have to say.
The Braves did not return calls from the GA Voice seeking comment about the meeting or about McDowell.
Jeff Schultz, sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covered the McDowell incident extensively and wrote in a column the coach was “lucky” to get only a two-week suspension. Schultz told the GA Voice in an email interview that homophobia in sports is still very much part of the game.
“How often do you see male athletes come out and admit they are gay during their careers? Answer: Never,” Schultz said.
“They know they never will be fully accepted by teammates in the locker room. Consequently, coaches don’t want to coach gay athletes and general managers or owners of teams don’t want to sign them,” he said.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean they are anti-gay themselves. But they’re in the ‘winning’ business, and if they believe having an openly gay athlete in the locker room is going to disrupt team chemistry and diminish their chance for success, it’s a road they would rather not go down,” he said. “That’s understandable to a degree. But obviously this situation allows homophobia to exist.”
Public outcry, media changing rules of game?
Last week, New York Rangers hockey player Sean Avery came out in support of gay marriage as part of the Human Rights Campaign’s campaign for marriage equality in New York. He is believed to be the first New York professional athlete to come out publicly in support of gay marriage.
“I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage,” Avery says in the video made for HRC.
But Avery’s vocal support of gay marriage was met with hostility from Uptown Sports Management’s Todd Reynolds, player agent, who represents several pro hockey players. Reynolds took to Twitter on May 9 to voice his displeasure with Avery, stating, “Very sad to read Sean Avery’s misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage.’ Legal or not, it will always be wrong.”
Uptown Hockey’s tweet garnered much attention in the rapid-firing Twitterverse and Reynolds had to back up a few steps.
Two hours after that first tweet, Reynolds tweeted, “To clarify. This is not hatred or bigotry towards gays. It is not intolerance in any shape or form. I believe we are all equal…” followed by this tweet, “But I believe the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I do not hate anyone.”
Schultz of the AJC said the recent examples of swift punishment of professional athletes could be credited in part to public outrage fueled by the “rocket ship” of today’s media.
“These days, something can be said in a weekly throw-away newspaper in North Dakota or a small blog site and it’s going to spread like wildfire the second somebody tweets about it on Twitter. The information age has gone from wagon train to rocket ship,” Schultz said.
“Once it’s out there, sports leagues and teams have to react. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and other past baseball heroes who were quasi-degenerates in their personal lives never would’ve made it today,” he added.
Cohen spoke out publicly against Bryant’s anti-gay foul and feels professional athletes, have to be responsible for their actions.
“He has a role to play, that’s what makes a sportsman great,” Cohen said. “He took his eye off the ball.”
For Durden, the comments from Bryant and McDowell “show where their mindset is.”
“I’m a huge Braves fan and I think McDowell should have been fired,” Durden said. “If any Joe-blow had said this at his job, he would have been fired. I’m not going to boycott the Braves, but there is some sort of free pass they get as sports figures. [McDowell] took locker room humor to the grandstands and he should’ve known better.”
Openly gay professional athletes exist, but in the U.S. they have come out after they retired. Examples include Olympic gold medal diver Greg Louganis, NBA player John Amaechi and NFL player Esera Tuaolo.
However, Matthew Mitcham of Australia won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an openly gay man — an historic moment in sports.
Durden said he hopes one day being a gay athlete is not fodder for hate.
“That’s Ben’s goal — to help gay guys come out in professional sports,” Durden said. “I think we will see someone do so in the next 10 years or sooner. The strides we make now will make it a lot easier for an athlete to get past that barrier.”
Top photo: International rugby superstar Ben Cohen brings his “Acceptance Tour” to Atlanta (publicity photo)