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


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.


  1. FFS says

    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.

  2. D.B. says

    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.

  3. Pablo says

    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.

  4. Chip says

    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.

  5. Bastian says

    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.

  6. Archibald Devereaux says

    @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.

  7. Mike says

    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!

  8. will says

    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.

  9. says

    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.

  10. Seattle Mike says

    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.

  11. Bastian says

    @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.

  12. SteveP says

    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.

  13. Kevin says

    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.

  14. Rikon Snow says

    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.

  15. WOLF says

    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.

  16. Rick says

    “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.

  17. james st. james says

    @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.)

  18. Pablo says

    @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.

  19. Rick says

    “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.

  20. Rick says

    “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”

    And the reason you cannot feel any kinship with a straight man is what? Because you don’t and can’t think of yourself as a man rather than a pseudo-woman?

    If so, this is a perfect illustration of what I mean when I say this attachment to/iconization of heterosexual women is nothing but a reflection of the lack of mental health and deeply psychologically damaged state of many gay men.

  21. says

    The term “icon” has been misused and overused for the past few years, rendering its meaning to be practically powerless.

    How about just saying he’s a gay ally (i.e. gay-ly)?

  22. Tyler says

    The only people who ever praise the homophobic, anti-women and anti-effeminacy drivel Rick is always posting is Rick himself, through the aliases he makes up to make it seem as though his points have merit and worth. They don’t. He hates women, detests effeminacy, loathes gays and despises liberals. He’s a troll and an obvious and irritating one at that. Just ignore him.

  23. Derrick from Philly says

    Just remember, Gay incons can vary based on what Gay “sub culture” you’re talking to.
    Whether Black, White, Latino or Asian–you may get different Gay icons.

    Oh, and Rick, on my office bulletin board I have pictures of James Dean, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman and a wonderful Black actor from the 1950s named James Edwards.

    It’s not all just Garland, Streisand, Billie Holiday, Diana Sands, Dorothy Dandridge and Bette Davis–although I do love the ladies more. (hee hee hee)

  24. Rick says

    “He’s fat anyway” was not posted by me, the real Rick. Just for the record. All the other comments in the thread–up to this point, at least–bearing my name, are, in fact mine.

    That said, I have no sexual attraction to Ben Cohen. Not my type, even without the love handles.

  25. jarago says

    Yes can use the word icon to describe someone who had stood the test of time- (as in the recent ridiculous Rihana is a music icon?!) Mr Cohen is a great ally- no too mention one of the sexiest men alive.

  26. m says

    icons are the past.

    does Ben Cohen have to be an icon? isn’t it enough that he’s living in the here and now and he is visible and vocal ally? he’s helping to change attitudes and just happens to be straight. nothing wrong with being a role model for straight young boys, showing that you can a be straight masculine athlete and still support people who are different than you. and nothing wrong if he is helping older athletes to change too.

  27. David says

    Archibald, get a life.
    The question “Is he an icon?” is just stupid. Towleroad, please find more intelligent things to discuss.

  28. Sargon Bighorn says

    If he were over 40, fat, and not handsome BUT DOING THE EXACT SAME work to support the LGBT citizens of the world, no one would give a crap about him. Yeah it’s true. That being said, he is handsome and not fat and maybe just 40, so I approve.

  29. Jaker says

    this “gay icon or not” debate series is pretty silly, not important in the slightest, waste of time discussion. who effing cares?

  30. Dexter says

    David, why is it stupid? Stating an opinion without supporting it with reasons is stupid. It’s difficult to hold someone’s opinion up with any regard if they haven’t explained, even briefly, why they feel that way. Otherwise, what point are you trying to make by commenting?

    That said, I like this series. Keep it up, B!


    The cynical crowd at Towleroad notwithstanding, are not the ones to judge. If he’s not an Icon, he’s certainly a Hero. A da*n fine looking one, too.


    Is there any post, any post at all on this blog that doesn’t self destruct with the misfits and the black holes of need and attention?

  33. luke says

    hero seems like a better fit than icon, and better in general. a lot of gay icons are people from years gone by where they might not have done much for us really.

  34. Brian says

    Icon, with out a doubt! The man has done more for the LGBT community than anyone posting on this blog (including me). When we look back 20 years from now, I will still remember Ben. Fondly.

  35. andrew says

    An Icon is a painting or a mosaic not a human being. Ben is a great guy and I- Candy for sure!

  36. JOHN says

    If you were to ask Ben (or anyone with his foundation) if he’s a gay icon, they would disagree – and having had members of his team on the campus where I work, I feel qualified saying this. They believe that those of us working to advance gay rights are the heroes and icons. The attention he gets is flattering but he uses it to keep the conversation going.

  37. jamal49 says

    As with anything else these days, the meaning of “icon” has been forever cheapened by the immediacy of access. Not a big fan of the whole “icon” thing anyway. I do not genuflect nor cross myself each time I see a picture of Judy Garland or any other assumed “gay icon”.

  38. wheelie81 says

    For a group of people that often complain about being labeled so much, we sure do like to label others a lot. Ben Cohen is a decent human being that stands up for what he believes in and also happens to be attractive to a lot of people….why can’t that be good enough?

  39. says

    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.