Outsports continues its feature, Out in the World: Diving into our deep archive of Coming Out stories and updating the stories of out athletes, coaches and other sports personnel who continue to prove, everyday, that Courage Is Contagious.
Chip McKenney remembers the moment he realized openly gay men belonged in team sports: the day he founded the Gay Polo League. Up until that time, the accomplished equestrian athlete sticked to solo sports, where he excelled. McKenney was slalom waterskiing at 8, and started riding horses competitively at 13. By 15, he was a state champion in Maine.
For the first half of McKenney’s adult life, he kept his sexuality secret. When that changed, he began searching for ways to connect with new people — gay lawyers’ associations, gay businessmen’s clubs. Nothing clicked. Then he paid a visit to the Santa Barbara Polo Club.
“I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I didn’t go to white parties,” McKenney said. “I didn’t go to gay pride events, and I was a horseman. I took a Polo lesson, and the rest is history.”
Seven years later, the Gay Polo League has only grown, with membership in 14 countries. This weekend, the group is holding its annual international tournament in Wellington, Fla., sponsored by Lexus, and in partnership with U.S. Polo Assn., the official brand of the United States Polo Association. Four teams will compete, featuring 16 players, six of whom are openly gay — including three pros. McKenney is no longer the only out person on the team.
It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
“We’ve had nothing but acceptance,” McKenney said. “It’s been phenomenal.”
At first, McKenney wasn't sure whether the polo community would be welcoming to him, never mind an LGBTQ-inclusive league. But his doubts were put to rest when the U.S. Polo Association reached out and granted his league official USPA status. Sexuality has never been an issue.
“Here’s my theory behind that,” McKenney said. “Number one, the majority of people who played polo tend to be well-traveled, so they tend to have a global perspective of the world.
“It’s also a team sport. They don’t hear the word ‘gay’ so much as they hear that you play Polo and they’re like, ‘Oh, you play Polo, come and play with us.’”
McKenney has been invited to play in events all over the world: South Africa, Australia, London, France. He’s hoping to travel again as soon as it’s safe, eyeing a December trip to Argentina for the Argentina Open Finals.
This weekend, the polo festivities will be different. Usually, the tournament draws around 4,000 spectators; but this year, general admission tickets won’t be sold. Social distancing will be enforced.
But it’s a step back towards normalcy, and that’s worth celebrating. On the field, players as young as 23 will compete against members as old as 73. For the first time in a year, everyone will be together. The Gay Polo League is back.
“The generations disappear, because the sport of polo is so powerful,” McKenney said. That’s another reason why Polo is considered inclusive in a lot of ways. Everybody plays out there together.”
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