England rugby union star Ben Cohen is retiring to become a gay rights activist.

The player, whose last team was Sale, has set up a foundation to tackle homophobia and bullying.

Cohen, who is a gay pin-up as well as a married father, will run the Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation.

He said: “I would never have imagined my career was going to move in this direction after my rugby career, but here we are – it’s happening.

“I have reached the top in my sport. It has been an incredible journey and has put me in the privileged position I am in today to be able to work on these exciting new projects through the Stand Up Brand.

“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.”

The sports star is to launch the Ben Cohen Acceptance Tour in the USA, which will visit gay and gay-friendly rugby clubs in Atlanta, Washington DC, Seattle and New York. He will hold training sessions at schools and colleges and talks on the need for equality.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” he said. “Attitudes need to change. Young people should not be bullied into taking their own lives. That is what is happening and it needs to stop”.

Cohen was released from his contract at Sale in March. While he has said he believes he could play for another two years, he is keen to start work with his foundation.

In August 2010, Cohen gave his support to Gay Sports Day, an event organised by GMFA, the gay men’s health charity, and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

He has also appeared on the cover of gay magazines.