Ben Cohen | Gay Iconography

Gay Iconography: Ben Cohen’s More Than Eye Candy, But Is He An Icon?


The phrase "gay icon" gets tossed around a lot, but what does that really mean? Welcome to Gay Iconography, a new feature where we present a proposed iconic figure or character and then ask you to weigh in with your thoughts. So far we've discussed Roseanne, Rickie Vasquez, Judy Garland and Donna Summer. While passionate comments poured in for and against each figure's iconic status, one recurring theme was the importance of gay icons that don't fit the typical "diva" mold, such as this week's selection.

Though far from a universal experience, there are few places more anxiety-inducing for young gay people than the gym class locker room. Athletics have a complicated association with homophobia that plays out on and off the field. That's started to change, as more athletes come out, and more people rally to combat the institutionalized hate-speech commonly found in athletics.

One of the faces at the forefront of this shift is Ben Cohen. Whether you know him from his 2003 Rugby World Cup win, his activism to end bullying or just his handsome, handsome face, he's risen to prominence as a loud, proud LGBT ally.

Learn more about Ben Cohen's work with the LGBT community and share your thoughts on his status as a gay icon, AFTER THE JUMP …


Ben Cohen first caught the attention of the gay community because, well, just look at him. He's long embraced his gay fanbase, even appearing on the cover of gay magazinesHearing stories from these new fans inspired Cohen to become a more vocal supporter for the LGBT community.


In 2011, Cohen retired from Rugby to focus on The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. The foundation focuses on raising awareness of the harm caused by bullying. In the clip above, Cohen talks about how his gay fans and his father (who died of injuries sustained from breaking up a barfight) motivated him to dedicate his efforts to this cause.


Cohen has become a go-to voice on LGBT issues in the sporting world. Hear him share his thoughts on why it's important for athletes to come out in the clip above.


His efforts have not gone unrecognized. Earlier this year, Cohen became one of the first inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. He was also honored with Attitude Magazine's Ally Award in October. See his acceptance speech and interview above.


Cohen's moves aren't limited to the rugby field. This fall, he participated in BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing (the U.K. equivalent of Dancing With the Stars). Though he wished to be paired with a male partner, he worked with Kristina Rihanoff and was ultimately eliminated in week 9 of the competition. See his steamy, shirtless paso doble above.

You can call him a rugby champ, an ally, a hunk or an activist, but would you call him an icon? Tell us in the comments if you think Ben Cohen qualifies as a gay icon.

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  1. Being a decent person doesn't make you an icon, gay or otherwise.

    Posted by: mickey | Dec 6, 2013 1:51:18 PM

  2. Does icon status come with an obligation to partake in a little touchy-nookie-nicky with the gays that idolize him?

    If so, then he has my vote.

    Posted by: FFS | Dec 6, 2013 2:00:18 PM

  3. I greatly admire and support the work Ben Cohen has done as an ally to the LGBT community. And it certainly doesn't hurt that he's easy on the eyes as well.

    But the man is only 35 years old. I think true icon status is earned over many years, perhaps decades. It's very possible that Cohen will with time become a gay icon, but I wouldn't really consider him one quite yet.

    Posted by: D.B. | Dec 6, 2013 2:06:02 PM

  4. From twinks to bears, loads of guys seem to have "looking for a Ben Cohen type" on their Scruff and Grindr profiles. What is that about? He's a great ally, but he's not saying anything special or different, so why the fuss if not his body? And is that all it takes to be an icon? No, thank you.

    For the average guy, even working out consistently, a Ben Cohen body isn't exactly realistic. It's as pathetic as straight guys saying they want a Pamela Anderson type. And to add to that, HE'S STRAIGHT. Stop drolling over him.

    Posted by: Pablo | Dec 6, 2013 2:15:54 PM

  5. Being a strong ally does not earn you "icon" status. In my opinion, gay icons are people with whom the gay community feels a kinship, or with whom they identify. It's for this reason that I would think it highly unlikely for a straight man to ever achieve icon status for the gay community, male or female.

    Posted by: Chip | Dec 6, 2013 2:16:39 PM

  6. This "icon" series is immature drivel. When did this become a high-school newspaper? The idol-worshipping subgenre of gay men is just that: a subgenre.

    Sorry for being nasty. The Internet made me do it.

    Posted by: Bastian | Dec 6, 2013 2:17:15 PM

  7. @Pablo: I wasn't drooling. Not anywhere you could see, at any rate.

    Posted by: FFS | Dec 6, 2013 2:20:25 PM

  8. @Bastian, what about this strikes you as immature drivel? I think it's a highly constructive conversation to have, discussing what makes an individual a gay icon. Or, for that matter, what the definition of a gay icon is. Is it strictly musical legends, like our Barbras and Lizas, or our film legends like our Joan Crawfords and Marilyns? Or can we cast a wider net? Or, if someone shares your mindset that idol-worship is a subgenre in the gay community (I don't think that word fits here the way you intend it to), then explain your stance. Otherwise you aren't adding to the discourse, you're just trolling for attention.

    Posted by: Archibald Devereaux | Dec 6, 2013 2:30:03 PM

  9. Huh, I don't know if a heterosexual white man can be a gay icon. I have think about this. Thanks for raising the discussion, Bobby!

    Posted by: Mike | Dec 6, 2013 2:36:00 PM

  10. We really have to have an agreed-upon definition for "icon" - because we're all willing it to mean a range of ideas.

    I'll start with the etymolgy dictionary.

    ICON: 1570s, "image, figure, representation," from Late Latin icon, from Greek eikon "likeness, image, portrait," related to eikenai "be like, look like," of unknown origin.

    ICONIC: 1650s, "pertaining to an image"

    Eastern Church . a representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred.


    Moving into the 19th century, we get definitions that start to appear recognizably modern, extending beyond religious figures:

    An important and enduring symbol

    One who is the object of great attention and devotion.

    A person who represents or embodies a specified quality.


    Many older people here have intertwined the idea of gay liberation and sexual freedom of the 1970s with dancing to Donna Summer in gay bars in their wild, freewheeling youth. Donna Summer now STANDS FOR gay sexual liberation regardless of the fact if she is herself gay or a homophobe. Anita Bryant has become a gay icon, too, though an anti-gay one. Harvey Milk. Matthew Shepard has become a gay icon,a symbol of American homophobia.

    What do we mean by GAY ICON? James Franco? Cher? Bette Midler? John Waters? Drag queens throwing pennies and beer bottles at police at the Stonewall Inn? We don't have an agreed-upon definition so we can legitimately have a large range of answers.

    Posted by: will | Dec 6, 2013 2:44:57 PM

  11. An "icon"? Why choose that word? Why not ask if he's a toaster-oven, or a cummerbund? He's a hero to the LGBT community. No need to press the issue.

    Posted by: RomanHans | Dec 6, 2013 2:48:22 PM

  12. Who cares if he's an "icon"? He's an outstanding ally and a hero who has probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives by preventing suicides. The fact that he's adorable and hot as well is just icing on the cake.

    Posted by: Seattle Mike | Dec 6, 2013 2:51:30 PM

  13. Icon? . . . No.
    Hero? . . . Yes! Yes, and Yes, again!
    Role Model . . . Sure.

    Posted by: Rikon Snow | Dec 6, 2013 3:03:46 PM

  14. can we actually have a gay icon who's actually gay for once?

    Posted by: okay | Dec 6, 2013 3:03:48 PM

  15. @ARCHIBALD DEVEREAUX, I applaud your efforts to start a dialogue, but you make so many false assumptions that I am exhausted before even beginning to respond. However, I will make two points:

    (1) I am gay. I don't care about (or idolize) any of the people you mentioned. I enjoy music and film, etc., but I don't see the need to put any of these people on a pedestal. If you do, fine, go ahead.
    (2) I am not looking for attention. I am registering my dislike of the author's icon series... you know, making a "comment" in the comment section.

    Posted by: Bastian | Dec 6, 2013 3:04:27 PM

  16. Using Will's definition "A person who represents or embodies a specified quality" he's definitely an icon for acceptance and equality. Is he a gay icon? I don't know.

    He's certainly a role model. For gay and straight men alike he's the model of tolerance and acceptance. He is a family man, and genuinely (I believe) loves his fans. He, along with the likes of Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, are people that our children can and should look up to. A category, I might add, that I feel is very lacking.

    Regardless of label, I'm thankful for him being out there and thankful for the work he does for all of us.

    Posted by: SteveP | Dec 6, 2013 3:06:01 PM

  17. I appreciate the iconography series that Towleroad is running. However, it would be great to also see some pieces on actual gay and queer people who have been role models, heroes, and icons for their own community. Allies (Roseanne, Cohen) are awesome and I love my divas (Summers, Garland) and landmark gay characters on TV (Vasquez) do a lot for visibility and acceptance. But let's celebrate the icons whose lives of resistance made the world we live in today a better place: Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Frank Kameny, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Jose Sarria, and Sylvia Rivera, to name a few.

    Posted by: Kevin | Dec 6, 2013 3:09:48 PM

  18. Gawd, gays are the worst sometimes.

    Posted by: DrKRL | Dec 6, 2013 3:14:47 PM

  19. Ally, a good person, lovely to look at, but not yet an icon in my opinion.

    Posted by: Matt27 | Dec 6, 2013 3:19:18 PM

  20. I'm really tempted to write -- keeping in theme with the dialogue about whether the 'iconography' series has any merit -- that apparently being a gay icon means being someone that drag queens want to emulate (think "Cher.") But that would be . . . um . . . not very nice, I guess.

    But, well, if the heels fit . . .

    So no. I don't expect to see a drag version of Ben Cohen.
    I wish I was Ben Cohen.
    I wish I was half as good looking as . . .
    Damn, Ben.

    Posted by: Rikon Snow | Dec 6, 2013 3:42:23 PM

  21. I hate it when gay guys say, "OMG, I can't believe you all are drooling over a straight guy." That's just disingenuous. They're still guys, sometimes very hot guys. You don't suddenly stop being attracted to their looks just because they're unavailable. If that were the case, you wouldn't find a gay guy attractive simply because he doesn't find you attractive. Case closed.

    Posted by: WOLF | Dec 6, 2013 3:56:38 PM

  22. "Many older people here have intertwined the idea of gay liberation and sexual freedom of the 1970s with dancing to Donna Summer in gay bars in their wild, freewheeling youth. Donna Summer now STANDS FOR gay sexual liberation regardless of the fact if she is herself gay or a homophobe"

    As a member of that generation (I was in college in the late 70's at the height of the disco era), I should point out that there were lots of disco singers that we all danced to; Donna Summer was only the best-known, in part because her records got play on Top 40 stations (which you would think would make her anything but an icon, if icon status means being outside the mainstream)

    And quite a few of those disco singers were actually gay men, themselves--Sylvester, Dan Hartman, the Village People (who were arguably as big as Donna Summer was and who actually recorded gay material ("San Francisco/Hollywood", "YMCA", "In the Navy").....but you don't hear them referred to as "gay icons", do you? Ironic, given that Summer was a homophobe, even if she later "repented" for it.

    And straight men like Chris Kluwe, Brandon Abajadeyo, Patrick Murphy, James Franco, and others have certainly done far more to advance the fight against homophobia than any of these straigh female "divas" have ever done. Not sure about Ben Cohen, because he seems to me to be a bit of a manipulator, given the way that he likes to "tease" gay men sexually.

    So in the overall scheme of things, this attachment to (and iconization of) heterosexual women in preference to men, whether gay or straight, much less lesbians........says more about the damaged psychological state of some gay men than it does about their actual value to us.

    Posted by: Rick | Dec 6, 2013 4:01:39 PM

  23. @Pablo: I wasn't drooling. Not anywhere you could see, at any rate.

    POSTED BY: FFS | DEC 6, 2013 2:20:25 PM

    Maybe not, but you were being droll.
    And Pablo said to stop drolling.

    (Since we're going to get picky about "words" today.)

    Posted by: james st. james | Dec 6, 2013 4:02:30 PM

  24. @Wolf - Of course straight guys can still be attractive, but when you're only pointing to straight guys or hyper-masculine/machismo gays, then that's a whole other issue. That's the issue I'm referring to.

    Like I said with the Pamela Anderson analogy, it's a statement that you want something unrealistic and it suggests to others that there is the model you might want to emulate. When you're gay and doing that, you're (along with the countless others drooling over the straight guy) suggesting to others that the gay guy isn't as desirable. Starts looking a lot like internalized homophobia.

    Posted by: Pablo | Dec 6, 2013 4:14:10 PM

  25. "I don't know if a heterosexual white man can be a gay icon"

    Not sure whether you are just a "good liberal" who hates all straight, white men or whether you are suggesting that being a straight, white man allows you to get away with doing things that others are not allowed to do.

    If the latter, then I would point out that it takes a lot MORE courage for a straight, white man to take on homophobia than it does for any woman or member of a minority group to do so. Unlike women, straight men who ally themselves with gay men run the risk of being thought to be gay, themselves, or at least of questionable masculinity. And unlike members of racial minority groups, they do not have the shield of being able to yell "racism" every time anybody criticizes them for anything.

    So your whole suggested premesis is utterly non-sensical.

    Posted by: Rick | Dec 6, 2013 4:14:27 PM

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