International Gay Polo League Returns to Wellington for Its 12th Season April 7–10

Gay Polo League flag girls
Gay Polo League flag girls
Sara Cole Photography

Majestic horses, elite athletes from around the world, and a fiercely festive, competitive spirit both on and off the field — the international Gay Polo League (GPL) is back this year in Wellington from April 7–10, and the International Polo Club Palm Beach is better for it.

Riding in on a rainbow of colors, the GPL is in its 12th year and is the only LGBTQ+ polo organization in the world.

The highly anticipated GPL event in Wellington attracts top players, high-end sponsors (LEXUS, Douglas Elliman, Baccarat, among others) and over 3,000 spectators — and with good reason. Not only does GPL offer spectacular polo playing at a variety of levels and ages, it promotes an awareness of LGBTQ+ athletes and helps raise money to support deserving LGBTQ+ initiatives and diversity.

It’s also a lot of fun. Off-the-field festivities include the legendary, over-the-top themed tailgating competitions, a Polotini fundraiser with dancing (lots of wigs!) and a creative, joie-de-vivre atmosphere that keeps the Champagne (and good vibes) flowing.

Adrian Pia, an Argentinian-born player who lives with his husband and art dealer Gordon VeneKlasen in Manhattan and in East Hampton, is one of 16 players who will compete in Gay Polo in April.

“Wellington is a dream polo player city — we breathe polo here,” says Pia, who recently played and practiced in Wellington and who owns the flying trapeze company HamptonsFly at Hayground in Bridgehampton.

Pia took up the game five years ago and plays at the Southampton and East Hampton polo clubs — experiences that connected him to Wellington and Gay Polo. “Everywhere I go, it’s like my family,” says Pia, adding, “It is such a small world that everyone knows each other … it’s so much fun.”

How did Gay Polo League evolve and what has been its impact in sports and the LGBTQ+ community? We caught up with its founder, Chip McKenney — a lawyer and horse enthusiast with a serious and successful background in show jumping — to talk all things Gay Polo.

The 2019 Gay Polo League teams
The 2019 Gay Polo League teamsCourtesy Gay Polo League

How did Gay Polo League get started?

It started in 2006 … I had retired from show jumping and then a friend introduced me to polo in Santa Barbara. I decided to take a lesson, just for fun. Halfway through that lesson I stopped, and I said to the coach, “I’m going to start a gay polo league,” and that was really the birth of it. On the drive back to Los Angeles, I called my friends and said, “Polo is a perfect sport for gay people.”

Why is polo a “perfect sport for gay people?”

It’s traditional, it’s elegant, it’s international and it’s a team sport, and I thought this would really be incredible. And for me, I thought it would perfect because it involved horses, which is in my DNA.

Let’s back up — for newbies, describe polo.

They say it’s like hockey on horseback at 35 miles an hour. [We laugh]. It’s four players on each team and you have different positions — and it’s a game of speed and strength and strategy; it’s just a really smart game.

In 12 years how has GPL grown?

It started as a local thing in Santa Barbara. … We now have members in 15 countries which is extraordinary — we’re a global league now. I was focusing originally on local events, but now I focus on producing international events.

This year in Wellington is groundbreaking — for the first time in the history of the event, all of the 16 polo players competing are gay … we have four gay pros playing. We have Tiffany Bush, who is from the Bush family; she’s a professional polo player, and she’s a lesbian and she has been playing with us for years.

Historically, our philosophy is we are a diversity group, and while we are gay-identified, we are inclusive, not exclusive, so if somebody outside of the gay community wants to play with us, we welcome that with open arms.

Gay Polo League founder Chip McKenney on his horse
Gay Polo League founder Chip McKenney on his horse

Who does GPL fundraise for?

About five years ago, we became a 501(c)(3) … in the first year we donated to a local organization called Compass, the second year I became aware of SAGE (which focuses on senior LGBTQ+ needs). … We donated close to $30K to them. This year, our net proceeds will get directed to One Pulse Foundation (born out of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando). … Our goal is always to use our platform to help other people who are less fortunate than we are.

GPL received an impressive award this year.

Thank you. Out of the blue, I was notified that the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame was awarding GPL the Champion of Diversity and Inclusion in Sports (award) for our event in Palm Beach County. … For us it’s a great thing … when somebody else who is totally disconnected from GPL recognizes the benefits of a diversity event in their county. In all fairness, Florida just passed “Don’t Say Gay.”

Yes, ironic, you get this award in PB County for raising visibility, and then this Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill must feel like being slammed legally.

It’s very much being slammed. The reality is it hurts the very people at their most vulnerable age — because I was one of those gay kids sitting in a school row, and I never knew that there were gay people or alternate families or non-traditional families. We (GPL) get stereotyped all the time. We don’t sexualize ourselves — we identify ourselves as a high-end sporting event in an LGBTQ+ space and beyond.

How is it living in Florida as an out, gay human?

I live in Wellington — I moved here six years ago from Los Angeles — I love it.

It’s interesting that you should ask that — it’s obviously very different because here I met a lot of gay people who support Trump which surprised me — in 32 years I had never met a gay Republican in Los Angeles. … In Wellington, what brought me here was the horse world. The horse world tends to be very sophisticated and very international — it is a very accepting community overall and I live in that bubble. … What’s interesting here is the government seems to be very anti-gay.

Aren’t there more gay people in Miami and Fort Lauderdale?

Oh, absolutely. Fort Lauderdale has a very large gay population — it’s an international gay vacation destination for LGBT people. Wellington has a large gay population, but it’s seasonal because equestrian sports tends to be a very safe environment for gay athletes.

Who comes to Gay Polo in Wellington?

Everybody. We get about 70% from the tri-counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) and get about 30% from out of state and out of country, so we really are a destination event for many.

Any chance of Gay Polo coming to the Hamptons?

It’s ironic we connected on this — I had just had lunch with Adrian (Pia) when you reached out, and he said, “You know, if you want to do one in Southampton, I can help make that happen.” That was really cool, because the one thing you really need is someone on the ground where you are going to have the event, because it’s very hard to organize it all remotely — it can be done.

Where are all the lesbians in all this?

My hope and my dream is to field an all-lesbian polo team international tournament. There are many, many lesbians out there who do play and we are just starting to resonate with them.

What is the vision for GPL?

The vision keeps getting bigger because the importance keeps growing. I’ll give you one example of when I really realized this is something bigger than what I originally envisioned of me just having a really nice social life. … When we had our first event in Wellington in 2010, the village had been approached about offering health benefits to same-sex couples, and they had rejected it. After the GPL event, the Palm Beach Human Rights Commission went back to Wellington and said, “You just had a gay-identified sporting event here, and it was well received. Don’t you think it’s time to reconsider?” And they did, and they extended health benefits for (Wellington) Village employees to their partners whether or not they were heterosexual or gay.

What are your wishes and hopes for GPL?

To build our network of polo players and people who enjoy the sport and the journey with us … to continue to use our platform to raise awareness of LGBT athletes and the importance of modeling the behavior we seek in other professional athletes and sports. To also be a positive influence for youth that may be unaware of any gay athletes … and to continue to raise money for LGBTQ+ charities because it seems like there is a relentless need for us to continue to strive for recognition and acceptance and equality.

The LEXUS International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, will be held at the International Polo Club in Wellington from April 7–10. For more info and tickets, visit gaypolo.com.

OUT EAST END PICKS

EMMETT TILL: A NEW AMERICAN OPERA
Wednesday & Thursday, March 23 & 24, 7 p.m.
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 W. 59th Street, NYC

East Hampton resident, playwright/librettist Clare Coss — who conceived and wrote Emmett Till, the moving play about social injustice — gets its world premiere as a new opera.
Tickets: emmetttillopera.com

ESTATE PLANNING
Wednesday, March 23 , 3:30 p.m. via Zoom
“Aging in Place at Home”

Estate planning tips with attorney Britt Burner of Burner Law Group, P.C.
Register: burnerlaw.com/webinars

NORTH FORK WOMEN: FOUNDERS AWARD
Saturday, April 9, 6–9 p.m.
RGNY Vineyard, 6025 Sound Avenue, Northville

Lucille Field Goodman Founders Award honoring Lori Cohen. Buffet dinner, DJ Susan Levine.
northforkwomen.org

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