Some years ago, early in the evolution of social media, a fan page for English rugby player Ben Cohen appeared on Facebook. "It had about 30,000 people on it at the time, and they were all men," recalls Cohen, who recently announced his retirement from rugby to focus on combating homophobia and bullying in sports. Cohen, who is married with twin daughters, found the attention flattering, but also a responsibility. "People were telling us their stories, and I felt it was important to respond," he says. "I know what bullying does, and I know it can tear you apart, and that, for a lot of young gay men or people who are perceived to be different, there is no family infrastructure to turn to, no support."
Photographed by Richard Phibbs | Styling by Grant Woolhead
Cohen got to play Australia—but his father didn't get to see that or any other match. The player was giving a radio interview days before the game when his coach met him outside the studio to break the news of his father's death. It is, he says, a big part of why he is here, today, at the start of a U.S. tour to establish his StandUp Foundation: "Having that man, who was the rock of our family, taken away from us... I know what violence does."
He believes the U.K. and Europe are slowly moving in the right direction, but that homophobia is more entrenched in U.S. sports. He finds it amusing that among gay fans there is some chatter around his sexuality ("It's only gay people who assume I'm in the closet"), as if a straight man couldn't possibly be this supportive without a reason. "I really couldn't give a damn what people think. Do I really have to explain myself? That I want to support antibullying across the board, especially in the LGBT arena?"
Moreover, he says, he would never want either of his daughters to have to endure the bullying, the doubts and insecurities, that have driven gay teenagers to suicide. "The whole thing about the StandUp Foundation is to look at the people who are silent participants in bullying, those who stand around watching, those who take pictures. They're the people we really need to affect. That's the movable middle, those swaying with the crowd. Bullying has to be stigmatized. If it were my children doing it, or watching it, I would have a massive problem with that. I'll bring them up to treat people as they would wish to be treated themselves."