Many a precocious gay teen has gone to bed dreaming of their favorite star actor or athlete gracing the posters hung around their room. In the amusing coming-of-age, coming-out “SuperBen” episode of new queer-themed British anthology series Patterns, London teen Liam (Rufus Gleave) wishes for guidance from the poster boy on his wall, English rugby champion Ben Cohen, and, in the show’s camp comedy fashion, his wish is granted.
Stepping directly out of a shirtless poster into Liam’s room, the former pro winger materializes to help the kid build up the confidence to conquer school bullies, and finally come out to his, incidentally, pretty DILF-y dad, Preston (Matthew Simpson).
The role came as a natural fit for Cohen, who has long put combating bullying and homophobia at the center of his activism, founding the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation in 2011. Few world-class professional athletes, who are straight, have worn their LGBTQ allyship as prominently or as proudly as Cohen, who goes so far in Patterns as to dance a dream ballet in a crop tee and cutoff shorts, all for the sake of supporting Liam, and kids like him.
“This was a great opportunity to be a role model and to help support [Patterns director-producer] Rex [Glensy] through something that I’ve probably always been curious of, with acting,” Cohen says over a video call from his home in the English countryside.
Though Cohen has made several non-sports-related TV appearances, most famously as a contestant on season 13 of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, he had “never really acted before, in front of the camera.”
He credits Gleave, the episode’s young lead, with supporting him. “He helped me massively, and made it easy for me,” he says, “[creating] a great environment for me to go in and be a novice actor.”
The subject matter, of course, resonates with Cohen. “It was something that I’m very passionate about,” he says, “that whole being an LGBTQ+ ally, and where it’s come from when I started. And how important it is to be an ally, what an ally looks like, and how we break down stereotypes, using straight allies like myself, a world champion sportsman, to boot, to really start a conversation and have an understanding about differences.”
He believes that conversation should include the matter of trans athletes competing in the sport that matches their gender, a “complicated” issue, according to Cohen, who says it requires people to rethink their own perceptions. “Part of learning and evolution is education,” he says. “And people are going to make mistakes, people are not going to be up to speed very quickly sometimes. And some people get up to speed at different times.”
Cohen has done his part to promote education and visibility, and pledges to do more to advance the conversation about ending homophobia, transphobia, bullying, and discrimination. He also points out that he’d like to see more athletes step up to be role models.
“Let’s not just do campaigns to shout about issues,” he insists. “Leave a legacy. You know, what is your legacy? How do we drive a cultural change? I think sport definitely has the power to do that. And there are a lot of our sports stars that should be role models and they’re not.”
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