AS THIS IS Anti-Bullying Week, here is a photo of me wearing my ‘I Stand Up Against Bullying’ t-shirt.
Actually, it’s not me, it’s former England rugby union international player and anti-bullying campaigner Ben Cohen. I did wear this t-shirt today as I was running a youth group on the theme of bullying, but he looks better in it than me!
Ben Cohen became an anti-bullying campaigner because of the death of his father, and the support of his fans.
In November 2000, Cohen’s father Peter was fatally injured while protecting an employee who was being physically assaulted at the nightclub he managed. He died a month later from head injuries sustained in the assault. Three men were found guilty of violent conduct. Losing his father in this tragic but courageous way left a deep impression on Ben.
As his career developed he gained a substantial gay following. As a happily married straight man with twin daughters who is comfortable with himself and his body, he did not shy away from this. He discovered an unofficial Facebook fan page with about 30,000 followers, who were all men. Cohen found the attention flattering, but also a responsibility. People began sharing stories of homophobic bullying, and Ben felt it was important to respond.
Ben said: ‘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.’
So in May 2011, at the peak of his career, he retired early to set up the StandUp Foundation to raise awareness of the long-term, damaging effects of bullying and to raise funds to support those working to stop it, with the motto:
‘When we stand up together, we stand up a bit taller.’
Ben explained when he announced the launch of the Foundation: ‘As athletes, it is not enough just to have strong bodies, we must have strong characters and use our voices to support those who need and deserve it.’
He is an extraordinary role model for gay and straight young people alike, challenging prejudice against difference in the macho world of sport, and in society at large. He is not afraid to lead by example, and so comfortable with his own sexuality that he has modelled his own range of Foundation undergarments to raise money for the cause!