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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

British, American Straight Sports Stars Pushing to End Homophobia

By Kilian Melloy -

Two athletes, two sports, two nations--and a unified message of equality. Ben Cohen, a Rugby pro in Britain, and All-American wrestler Hudson Taylor are both heterosexual, but they stand at the forefront of GLBT acceptance in the sports world, the New York Times reported on May 13.

Indeed, the Times reported, their position with regard to the issue is somewhat unique: "They may be the only two high-profile heterosexual athletes dedicating their lives to the issues of bullying and homophobia in sports," the article said.

The athletes often have to explain that they are not gay themselves, the Times reported, but that leads to another query: Why do they care? Cohen, who has created an organization--the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation--to address the issue, says that the issue is "massively important."

"Massively," Cohen reiterated to the Times. "Of course it is. I’m the other side of that bridge."

The 32-year-old athlete recently retired from rugby. "I have reached the top in my sport," Cohen told British newspaper the Guardian, which reported on his new career in a May 15 article. "It has been an incredible journey and has put me in the privileged position I am in today to be able to work on these exciting new projects through the StandUp Brand.

"As athletes, it is not enough just to have strong bodies," Cohen added. "We must have strong characters and use our voices to support those who need and deserve it."

That is not the traditional view of star athletes--or of the sports world in general, which is still stereotyped as homophobic. But all that may be changing now and more rapidly than anyone would have guessed.

It’s only been a little more than a year since British rugby star Gareth Thomas came out as gay, sending ripples across the sporting world on both sides of the Atlantic. But even in that short time, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter raised hackles--and howls--with an off-the-cuff remark about gay soccer fans remaining celibate during the 2022 World Cup finals if they intend to see the games in person, because the matches are scheduled to take place in the Muslim-dominated nation of Qatar. Not so long ago, a comment of that sort would have attracted little notice--expect, perhaps, for a catcall or two of approval.

Similarly, when Lakers star Kobe Bryant recently hurled an anti-gay epithet on the court in the heat of play, the comment cost the player a hefty fine--and an apology. And when Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell reportedly harangued several fans with anti-gay oaths and sexually explicit gestures--then menaced a father with a baseball bat while his young daughters clung to him--the result was a two-week suspension.

Then came hockey star Seth Avery’s endorsement of a push to bring marriage equality to the state of New York. Avery’s participation in a series of 30-second advertisements on the theme of "New Yorkers for Marriage Equality" marked the first time a pro athlete had lent his face and voice to the project.

"In much the same way that the hockey player Sean Avery’s recent endorsement of gay marriage resonated in large part because it came from an unexpected source, their sexual orientation helps the message cross to broader audiences," the New York Times article noted.

"But in a world where no active American athlete in a major male team sport has declared his homosexuality, it remains rare for athletes to chime in on the issue of gay rights. Recent exceptions, beyond Avery, include Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of the Phoenix Suns, who recorded a public-service announcement decrying gay slurs in sports," the article added.

The article noted that Cohen--a married father of twins--has what in the U.S. is known as a Big Gay Following. Fans reached out to him with stories of having their own athletic ambitions cut down by fear and homophobia.

"It brings me to bloody tears," Cohen said, sharing messages that gay fans had sent him, the article reported.

"It is incredibly exciting and we have so many plans in the pipeline to be able to make a difference," Cohen told the Guardian. "In my view, rugby is a very inclusive sport. Everyone can get involved in one way or another, so I will be using it as a vehicle to drive my message of acceptance out to people from all walks of life, everywhere. There is a lot of work to be done. Attitudes need to change. Young people should not be bullied into taking their own lives. That is what is happening and it needs to stop."

The New York Times article also said that Cohen’s own family has had a brush with the kind of violence that shadows gays even now: His father, a nightclub owner, was jumped and beaten outside of his own establishment. His injuries were so serious that he died a few weeks later.

Taylor, meantime, has established Athlete Ally, in which participants swear to help bring homophobia on the field or in the court to an end. The 24-year-old has become an assistant coach at Columbia University following a high-profile college wrestling career. The New York Times article noted that Taylor’s headgear sported a sticker with the logo of the Human Rights Campaign on it--a bit of accessorizing that drew him instant attention.

Taylor, who is engaged to be married to his girlfriend, told the New York Times that sports pros may not know that they have gay friends and colleagues. Much of the pro sporting world is still silent on the issue of gay athletes, with pros almost always coming out of the closet after retirement--if at all. Taylor echoed the truism that attitudes about gays that are based on myths and stereotypes only fall away when people get to know actual GLBT individuals.

"How do you make it personal? That’s the question," he told the Times. As to Cohen, whom Taylor has met briefly, the young man was full of praise.

"I love what he’s doing," Taylor declared. "We need more Ben Cohens in this world. He has a platform that allows the message to carry farther and ring louder than my own. We need more allies in position of power to speak out."

Kilian Melloy is EDGE Media Network’s Web Producer and Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes aggregate news stories and commentary for EDGE.

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