Last week, we had the absolute pleasure of interviewing ex-rugby worldwide champion, turned bullying activist – Ben Cohen, who now runs the StandUp Foundation. We spoke with Ben about bullying, gender in sport, homophobia and gay issues and life with a disability. Here goes…
Ditch the Label: Hi Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Ben Cohen: Not at all, I think it’s great what you guys are doing so it’s my pleasure.
Ditch the Label: Thank you. So what made you decide to go from playing rugby to setting up the StandUp Foundation, which helps fund anti-bullying projects and campaigns?
Ben Cohen: A few years ago, my dad sadly died after sustaining injuries when trying to stand up for an attack victim, which had a huge knock-on effect with the entire family. Shortly after, a friend of mine pointed out a fan page for me on Facebook, which had thousands of gay fans, which was an absolute honour. At this point I realized that I had become a role model and felt like I could bridge a gap between the gay and straight communities. Having been a world rugby champion, I had a lot of doors open to me and so in 2007, I launched the foundation. Since then we have grown organically and has been a great way for me to channel the anger and hurt that arose from everything that happened with my dad into something positive.
Ditch the Label: Growing up, were you ever bullied?
Ben Cohen: Not so much. I was always the person who would stand up for others. I was brought up with very strong values about being nice to others and so it has always been one of my core values. My mum was heavily bullied as a child as she didn’t live with her parents; she was bullied profusely, along with both of her brothers, which is hard to take in.
Ditch the Label: Did you ever feel pressured into having certain interests that were perceived as being more masculine?
Ben Cohen: It’s surprising because my uncle George was a world champion football player, my dad was also a really good player but I was always useless at it. I was never strong academically and I took a strong interest in rugby, which helped in many ways. So no, I was never really pressured into anything.
Ditch the Label: What advice would you give to any young person out there who does have an interest that is slightly different or would like to pursue a career in an avenue that is largely dominated by the opposite sex?
Ben Cohen: Well there is a lot of bullying that goes on around this, not just at school and college but also at home from family members. It’s important to always follow what you want to do and to make your own mistakes, which is how you also learn.
Ditch the Label: How about for other parents out there? What should they do?
Ben Cohen: As a parent, you’ve probably experienced everything that your kids are going through and you will want to try and point them in the right direction but sometimes they will challenge it and rebel against what you say. There is nothing stronger than learning from first hand experiences. It’s about finding a happy medium!
Ditch the Label: On the topic of gender… have you found that certain types of sport are more dominated by different genders?
Ben Cohen: Certainly sports like football, rugby and cricket but I think that things are changing. There has been a huge shift over the past 5 years towards sport that is inclusive of women too. Especially in the USA, women in soccer teams have been filling stadiums, which is great to see.
Ditch the Label: Do you think that there is anything that can be done to balance out the sexes in sport?
Ben Cohen: Well I think a lot of it is already in place. A whole range of sport is covered on TV and hopefully it will continue to snowball. You also find that cultural values and norms play a huge part of it – for instance, in China, there is still a strong belief that men should work and women should stay at home. They say that we follow the USA, which is good because soccer and basketball are their major sporting activities and it’s already a lot more balanced.
Ditch the Label: For the readers that don’t already know, you have a slight hearing impairment, which has made you partly deaf. Have you experienced prejudice for it and has it ever held you back?
Ben Cohen: Nothing too serious. I mean my friends have taken the mick and in the past I have lived in denial about it but I used it to my advantage. I actually became the strongest communicator on the pitch because I would commentate on everything I did which really helped. I now use it to empower others, a disability, whether major or minor should never hold you back. It can’t take over your life, you have to do what you love.
Ditch the Label: Recently you were wrongly ‘outed’ as being gay by MP Jon Bercow, how did you feel about it? Do you think that it puts other straight men off supporting gay rights?
Ben Cohen: I hope not! Honestly, I think it’s funny. I don’t mind at all. I am so comfortable with my sexuality so it isn’t a big deal at all. It was funnier that it ended up in the press. Poor Jon, he felt awful!
Ditch the Label: You have quite a large online following. How is that? Do you ever experience any negativity?
Ben Cohen: I don’t actually get much negativity. I see the Internet as having as many pros as cons. Firstly, it’s a great way of connecting with people. It enables me to connect with my audience and to get our messages out there. We help connect other people too. I have found that the Internet can be a really strong and caring community. Once a guy commented on my Facebook page and said that he wanted to kill himself. A few people saw it and reached out to him, took him to a shelter, got him new clothes and managed to find him a job and it completely turned his life around.
Ditch the Label: What advice would you give to anybody reading this who is either being bullied or is finding it difficult to identify and accept themselves?
Ben Cohen: Key piece of advice: seek help. It may not come from the first or second person you approach but it is out there and people are there to support you. It may be a family member, a friend, teacher or a counsellor – never feel like you are alone because you aren’t. Getting to your final fuse is not an option. Whether you’re in the closet, perceived as being different or bullied for a different reason, there is help out there for you.
Ditch the Label: What advice would you give to any parents reading this who are concerned about their child’s Internet usage?
Ben Cohen: It’s your responsibility to monitor and safeguard the content that they are viewing. There is software that you can use to ensure that you child isn’t being exposed to anything sensitive and it is always important to create an open and honest dialogue with your child so that they know they can approach you with any concerns or questions.