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Be here, be queer, play polo: Gay Polo League creates safe athletic space for LGBTQ community
by Lu Calzada
2024-03-26

This article shared 10477 times since Tue Mar 26, 2024
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LGBTQ+ athletic clubs aren't too hard to come by, offering a variety of sports such as softball, soccer and more in cities across the country. But LGBTQ+ athletes would be harder pressed to find someplace to engage in the sport of kings—polo. That's where Chip McKenney comes in.

Founded in 2006, the Wellington, Florida-based Gay Polo League (GPL) is the world's premier polo organization for LGBTQ+ athletes. What started as a personal side interest for McKinney quickly spread to 15 countries and nearly 15 years of its flagship International Gay Polo Tournament, creating a community of queer athletes worldwide.

Back nearly 20 years ago, McKenney's good horse had to be retired. A dedicated horseman through his participation in showjumping, this change left a gap in McKenny's life. Since he didn't regularly attend clubs or gyms—the stereotypical spots for gay men to hang out—he also came to realize his network of LGBTQ+ folks was quite small. He subsequently attended a few events put on by various Los Angeles LGBTQ+ organizations, but those ended up being people just just standing around talking, which wasn't what he was looking for.

During this time period, someone McKenney knew recommended he take a polo lesson. Knowing nothing about the sport at this point and not having been on a horse for six months, he went up to Santa Barbara for an individual lesson.

"Halfway through the lesson, I literally just stopped the horse and I looked at the coach and I said, 'You know what? This is a great sport for LGBT people, and I'm going to start a gay polo league,'" he said. "And that's how it all started."

McKenney said what led him to that conclusion was how unique and historic the sport is. Due to its strong traditions and capacity for being played anywhere in the world, he said polo "feels very special" to watch and participate in.

On the way home, he called two friends to come back with him for a lesson the next week. In the coming months, this became a regular gathering involving even more people. They started having picnics after their playing time, where they'd stay and watch the real games. McKenney eventually started organizing themed events for the group. One of the first ones was called "Gay for a Day," where players could bring anyone from any community.

The group's publicity increased. McKenney made a website, started organizing clinics and everything just kept getting bigger. Today, the league has members and multiple tournaments worldwide, including its flagship GPL Tournament—which McKenney described as "the love child between Burning Man and Pretty Woman"—in Wellington, the United States' top polo location.

"My big aspiration was to do an event in Florida, in Wellington," he said. "In 2010, that opportunity presented itself and we came and we had this event and it was really well received. Fast forward and we've been doing it every year, and we're one of the top three best-attended polo events in North America."

Hosting an LGBTQ+ event in Florida is no small matter in today's sociopolitical climate. Considering the state has some of the harshest anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the country, GPL has naturally received questions and backlash about the continuation of events in Florida. McKenney said he remains in the state as a means of challenging people there and standing strong for LGBTQ+ representation in the state.

If GPL were to ever leave the state, it would be because they feel they've done all they could do there, not because they're fearful, Mckenney said.

"If anything, it's more important than ever to be here because I feel like I'm in the belly of the beast at times," he explained. "What I've learned by that is it takes a little bit more courage and a little bit stronger belief in the value of being visible."

The International GPL Tournament also includes more than just polo. It also includes the GPL Polotini Wigstock party—where folks don elaborate and ridiculous wigs and get together to be social and fundraise—and an equally elaborate and ridiculous tailgate. The tailgating aspect normally involves a theme and very creative guests, which has in the past included folks recreating an airplane cabin with airline seats and hiring a string quartet to come play for a Titanic-themed setup.

The excitement and welcoming community are some of Gus Larrosa's favorite parts of being a part of GPL. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he first heard of the league when they came to play there in 2016. He'd been a polo player on and off for years before joining GPL and had been riding horses his whole life on his family's farm.

Nearly a decade later, he's still involved in the league—and is also married to McKenney.

When he was younger and coming to terms with his sexual orientation, Larrosa stopped playing competitive sports. He said meeting members of the GPL changed his life, allowing him to share his story and experience with others in similar positions, and even giving him the confidence to come out to his family.

"In GPL, you can feel all the energy … you start to learn a lot about the individuals and their history," Larrosa said. "You start to share and perhaps people help you and you can help another person … and it's really important to show that you can be gay and do a sport and you don't need to do something different. You can be a professional."

What started out as a fun way for McKenney to get his athletic fix turned out to be something much larger and far-reaching. He said getting to present LGBTQ athletes to the world as serious athletes has become important work for him, part of which has included pairing activism with polo.

"Once I realized that we had a platform, I started thinking about how we could use this to benefit and give back to the gay community that has given so much to me and to us," McKenney said.

The organization fundraises for charity partners at different events, with recipients ranging from local to national organizations. Ahead of the 2024 International GPL Tournament, the Elton John AIDS Foundation reached out to the league and expressed interest in being involved, and it is now the official charity of the upcoming tournament.

Part of McKenney's desire to partner with charity organizations and include community activism in his events is about visibility—he was a sports fan as a child but never saw any openly LGBTQ+ athletes. He said that, even today, the representation of LGBTQ+ people in sports still has a long way to go.

McKenney characterized a GPL match as the type of event to which you could bring your kids or your grandmother to, and they'd all have fun. The GPL also welcomes allies to play as well.

"We have players of all different skill levels," McKenney said. "We have players of all different ages and all different sizes, our youngest member is 22 and our oldest member is 76. We don't have those qualifiers. What we do is we welcome everybody, and our culture is one of encouragement and support."


This article shared 10477 times since Tue Mar 26, 2024
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