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Ben Cohen: Rugby star and LGBT ally
by Tony Peregrin

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Ben Cohen—rugby star, calendar model and vocal straight ally to the gay community—will be a featured guest at the opening ceremonies for the 35th annual Gay Softball World Series ( GSWS ) , a six-day, multilevel tournament that is expected to draw 4,000 fans and athletes to the Chicago area at the end of the month.

"I went to Chicago in '97 to watch a game … at Wrigley Field, is that the name? We don't really get it over here. Actually, we call it 'rounders' in England. I like it. I like any sport, to tell you the truth—it will be good fun," said Cohen, who retired from professional rugby earlier this year in order to focus on The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, Inc. the world's first foundation to raise awareness and funding to combat LGBT bullying and homophobia in sports.

Cohen might be off the pitch—that's "field" in rugby parlance—but that doesn't mean he's lost his hustle: This spring, he completed the first leg of his "Acceptance Tour 2011" ( look for a second tour to launch in the U.S. this fall ) , and earlier this month he launched, a site that is part e-commerce ( profits from StandUp merchandise benefit the foundation ) and part organizational tool where individuals can log on to join the Standup "army" of volunteers. The first day went live was Aug. 3; the site crashed due to the overwhelming number of visitors.

Windy City Times caught up with Cohen ( who was a bit late for the call as he was tucking in his twin daughters for the night ) to discuss the bullying epidemic, how his hearing loss has made him a better communicator and if he can be persuaded to donate another signed jockstrap for charity.

Windy City Times: Have you ever been a victim of bullying?

Ben Cohen: I've never been bullied, never at all. Our family, all of us, we don't bully. My parents were very much anti-bullying. In 2000, I lost my father to violence, actually, when he stood up for an employee who was being attacked.

Some of the stories that I've been told from my friends [ in the LGBT community ] , and that I've heard about in the press, are just heartbreaking.

WCT: What would you say or do if you happened to catch someone in the act of bullying a gay or lesbian teen?

BC: I'd sit then down and talk to them about the long-range effects that bullying can have over people's lives. There was a lad, and this came through a friend of ours, her son was being bullied so bad that he sort of shut down inside, and he started to bleed out of his back end. And he wasn't gay, but he must have seemed gay, or different somehow, and his mom literally came within a nanosecond of her son committing suicide.

I think it's not just about telling the bully that such behavior leads to emotional scars [ for the victim ] . We need to look at why people bully, and start by looking at their home lives. Is this what's happening at home? Is this considered normal behavior in that environment?

WCT: Not everyone may be aware that you have a 33-percent hearing loss in each ear ( which means you are clinically deaf ) and that you suffer from tinnitus—a permanent ringing in the ears. How has overcoming your hearing loss made you a better communicator overall?

BC: I think it's something you learn. I'm actually probably even more deaf now! [ Laughs ] In a quiet room, or in a small group, it's not too bad. But if there's a lot of background noise, I can't hear high pitches and I can't hear s's and t's—all I hear is "hmmm, hmmm" when people talk. Fortunately, I am in a sport where you have to find different ways to communicate. It comes down to awareness, and being very aware of the people around me. So, I definitely think it has made me a better communicator.

WCT: Can you talk a little about the new website and its purpose and mission?

BC: We went live yesterday, and we had a bit of trouble! It was purely a matter of the volume of people that went on there. I think it all hit at once and it crashed the system. But we've upgraded everything. As for the standup website, we're just looking to expand our support and our network.

WCT: I read that with the website, you have a small team looking to recruit a kind of StandUp army to help spread the word, help out at events and other things. My understanding is that this army is still in its infancy, but what can you tell me about your goals for this team, and how can people find out more information?

BC: We do events and we often need volunteers for that. Ultimately, right now, we're looking to support the foundation, and to get as many people as we can aware of the Standup Foundation brand. We want to make a difference and show that bullying is not cool anymore. In England it was right to be a racist in the early '80s or '90s, but it's not anymore. And we want to do the same for bullying.

WCT: Did you have a hand in designing the new Standup Foundation T-shirts, Ben?

BC: It was a team effort, for sure. The foundation decided we needed a really strong emblem, and that the outline of my body within the standup logo would be a strong image. Everyone at the foundation as input on everything we do.

WCT: I hear that you actually enjoy being photographed, but that you like to keep things light-hearted on set, and that sometimes you have to remind the photographer or stylist that you're a rugby player by trade—not a model.

BC: I don't mind doing that. I enjoy it! I'm not in good shape at the moment, though. [ Laughs, pats stomach loudly ] People ask me sometimes if I mind that gay people are looking at me like that, and I always say "No." It's about breaking down stereotypes—that's why I do it. And for the foundation. The more people we get to follow and support us, the more of a difference we can make.

WCT: Your Facebook page has around 175,000 fans—many of them gay men. Are there ever situations that arise where a fan steps out of bound? How do you handle that?

BC: Not one gay person that I have ever come across has been inappropriate. Not one. Everyone has been very good about it. And I am very grateful for that. People, when they first me, treat me with such respect. This year, I went to my first pride celebration in London and everyone was so well-mannered and polite.

WCT: Last year, you donated a signed jockstrap to support GMFA, a British charity that supports gay men's health issues, which was sold at auction. How much did the jockstrap bring in?

Ben Cohen. How much? I think it was $450.

WCT: Would you consider auctioning off a personal item of clothing like that in Chicago to benefit a worthy cause?

BC: [ Laughs. ] I don't mind having fun and whatnot, and I don't mind doing that—if it's worth doing. But we want to be careful not to come across as too sleazy and to not send out the wrong message, especially regarding the foundation and all the work that we do. But look, I happen to have a fan base of people and some of them might find me attractive and it's great that I get to do something worthwhile with that support.

Ben Cohen is scheduled to appear at Sidetrack Tuesday, Aug. 30, 8-11 p.m. A live auction will feature some of Cohen's "personal items" with proceeds benefiting The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, Inc. Cohen will also sign autographs and take pictures at the event.

Opening ceremonies for the 35th Annual NAGAAA Gay Softball World Series will take place Monday, Aug. 29, at 5 p.m., at Navy Pier.

Gay Softball World Series begins play August 30. Come back for daily updates at

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