Gay polo finds a community shouting back, welcoming and accepting
He was riding his pony at full gallop. The clock ticked away, nearing the end of the first chukker. Tom Landry was focused and concentrated on his training, on the moment. He swung his mallet into a neck shot, and scored a goal.
It’s not really a pony, but a full-grown horse. In the game of polo, however, they’re called ponies, for alliterative purposes. Full gallop means riding at about 30 miles per hour. Each game is divided into four chukkers, like innings. Each one lasts seven-and-a-half minutes. Like in other sports, the clock stops during injuries and penalties, among other things.
Landry’s mallet is a bamboo shaft, topped with hardwood. Swinging it near-side is swinging to the left of the pony. Swinging the mallet off-side is swinging to the right of the pony. Making a neck shot, like Landry did, is swinging it in the middle, underneath the pony’s neck. It usually launches the hard, plastic polo ball in a 90-degree angle.
That was last year, when Landry was named Most Valuable Player during the 2011 International Gay Polo Tournament. Put on by the Gay Polo League (GPL), the event is returning for its third annual installment in Wellington on Saturday, April 14. It’ll all take place at the Grand Champions Polo Club.
This year will be Landry’s second time competing in GPL’s international tournament.
“We’re playing in Wellington, the birthplace of polo in the U.S. It’s exciting to play there,” said Landry, who’s co-directing the endeavor. “It’s a huge opportunity, in the polo world, to play with pros on this caliber. Most pros have never even been to Wellington.”
And the pros are exactly the determinant for this year’s teams. Four teams will be led by four professional players: Nic Roldan, Jason Crowder, Juan Bollini and Joey Casey. Landry will be playing under Jason Crowder, with whom he’s played for several years. He hopes, like every player SFGN talked to, that his team wins.
“I love seeing new blood come into the sport,” he said about Mark Bennet, a new player on the Re/Max team. “I’m really excited to share that experience with him.”
New players, and fans are the lifeblood and success story of the GPL. Hailed sometimes as the sport of kings, its accepting and welcoming arms stretched out to the GPL in what the organization’s founder called “powerful.”
“Overall, the established polo community — a long and deep community — has been extremely encouraging to the Gay Polo League,” said Chip McKenney, founder of the GPL. “That’s a pretty wonderful thing. I wasn’t expecting their support, but they have given it.”
McKenney, who’ll be playing on the Gamma Mu team, had a horse background already deeply set in, having show-jumped for years. When he decided to retire from the exhibition sport, he wanted to increase his social network within the LGBT community.
“I didn’t have many gay friends,” he said.
So McKenney joined gay men’s associations focused on law and business, but found that they were mostly immersed in get-togethers centered around cocktails, which wasn’t his style. At around the same time he started playing polo.
“It’s a sport that has all the ingredients that the gay community embraces — it has beauty, tradition, team-play,” he said. “It was just me and a couple of friends, and their friends, and their friends, and it’s grown.”
The group evolved into what’s now become the nationally and internationally acclaimed GPL. McKenney said the organization operates on four principles.
First, the gay community is changing. The more LGBT becomes mainstream, the more a part of its culture disappears, he said.
“When I moved into Los Angeles, there were 12 gay bars, now there are two,” he said.
It shows that the gay people are allowed to go more places, which McKenney said he’s happy to see, but felt he wanted to provide an avenue for cultural preservation.
The youngest player is 23 and the oldest is 66, and come from all different careers, shapes and sizes. Their common denominator is being part of the LGBT community and wanting to be active within it.
The second principle allows the GPL to play straight teams, and represent the LGBT community in an arena where the community used to have little, to no, existence.
The third principle is a bit more political. Since the Wellington games started up in 2009, the city of Wellington adopted anti-discrimination policies. It later gave benefits to same-sex couples, McKenney said.
“The ripple effects were larger than we initially expected,” he said. “I never thought of the GPL as a political presence.”
Finally, the GPL allows people to have experiences outside of the box. People play, travel, and meet like-minded friends — all while riding horses and swinging mallets.
“This year alone, we’re invited to send teams to Scotland, Argentina, France, Thailand and China,” McKenney said. “That’s just based on our presence in the larger world. Those are polo clubs reaching out to us, asking us to come and play there.”
But the LGBT community is not the only one to benefit from GPL. Gina Padilla will be playing on the Cedar Crest Stables team. Born in the Philippines, she used to ride full-time and compete there. She moved to the States in the mid-eighties, right after college, and ended up on the east coast.
City-life would lead her to give up on her riding ambitions, a hobby she picked back up when she moved to California. There, where she lives with her husband these days, Padilla played at the same club where the GPL practiced and played. She’d known the players before the GPL was a fully formed club, and was planning on coming to Wellington this year to watch, before she was invited to play. Padilla explained that polo always was, and sometimes still is, a male-dominated sport. Women, she said, had a hard time getting into polo, too.
“But I feel we’ve broken that barrier, and so has [the LGBT community],” she said.
“It’s good to see that there’s big acceptance from the social community and from the polo community.”
Accessibility to the sport, which many find intimidating and exclusive, is another side to the GPL that McKenney is trying to foster. Take Dwight Tran, for example, who’ll be playing this year on the Palm Beach Rox team. He started playing in 2010 and competed in the 2011 international tournament, snagging the Most Improved Player award.
“It’s freedom, it’s like flying down the field. It’s really putting it all out there,” Tran said. He played polo in his Stanford University days, but had taken a long break from the sport. “I had about 8 months to get ready. I literally played and rode six days a week. Getting that award was recognition that I put so much time and effort into this.”
What all the players seem to agree on is the empowerment that the league and the tournaments have been able to provide for the LGBT community.
“Chip and I really focus on creating a safe place for people to come and learn the sport, and advance their own taste in a safe and supporting environment,” Tom Landry said. “It’s wonderful to watch that metamorphosis happen. Being a gay-identified league is sometimes a little bit of a challenge. It’s fascinating to be integrated into the straight world.”
“If you look at any sports team in the mainstream, you see a complete absence of gay-identified team players,” he said. “We know there are gay athletes in these sports, but they’re not visible. For us, the whole idea is: The more people that get exposure to us, the more that it legitimizes not only our group, but gay perception a whole.”
Visit GayPolo.com for more information.
[If You Go]
April 14, 2012, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Grand Champions Polo Club
Corner of South Shore Boulevard and Lake Worth Road
$20 for general admission
$175 for a tailgating space (you can watch the game from it) and 8 general admission tickets
Four teams will be led by four professional players. Here’s the lineup:
Cedar Crest Stables/Star Meadow
Joey Casey (Captain)
Juan Bollini (Captain)
Gordon W. Ross/Re/Max
Jason Crowder (Captain)
Polo Gear/Palm Beach Rox
Nic Roldan (Captain)