At The GPL, It’s All About The Mission
By Jennifer Martinez
When Chip McKenney reflects on why he founded the Gay Polo League (GPL), memories of exclusion and isolation come rushing forward.
“I felt like I was the only gay athlete in the world,” said McKenney, the league’s founder and president. “There was pressure then, that still exists today, to keep quiet if someone is gay and athletic. I felt team sports were not a safe place for me, so I avoided them.”
Polo became the vehicle for McKenney to create belonging. As a former show jumper, he saw polo as a way to bring the LGBTQ+ community together for sport and fun. He launched GPL in Los Angeles in 2006 by inviting gay athletes and allies to a monthly tournament at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Beyond the joyful camaraderie of the matches, he saw the greater impact that GPL was making.
“We have an opportunity to model athletes who are LGBTQ+ in a way that shows younger people that you can be a gay person, you can participate in a team sport, and you can do both authentically and openly,” McKenney said.
McKenney also sees the Gay Polo League’s broader role in uniting all on the field.
“We are a gay-identified organization. However, we are inclusive, not exclusive,” he said. “We believe there is power and great value in allies playing on our teams and supporting our events.”
He sees it all as part of the GPL’s mission, which is “to inspire and empower those individuals who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender via the promotion of and participation in the sport of polo.”
As the league grew, it wasn’t long before McKenney set his sights on Wellington, bringing the first International Gay Polo Tournament to the village in 2010. He saw the power of GPL just as that first tournament concluded.
As McKenney left the stage at the end of the trophy presentation, a security guard approached. He shared the story of his close cousin, a Vietnam veteran, who disappeared to San Francisco after the war. The guard never heard from his cousin again, learning later that he was gay and died of AIDS. He told McKenney, “Protecting you today was something I couldn’t do for him.”
In that moment, McKenney experienced the GPL’s mission coming to fruition.
“Awareness stimulates discussion, discussion generates understanding, and understanding is the foundation and cornerstone of inclusion and equity,” he said.
The league’s efforts to advance inclusivity grew when the tournament became a nonprofit charitable organization in 2016. Since then, the league has chosen an LGBTQ+ charity as the beneficiary of each Wellington tournament, creating awareness of the isolation and exclusion that has hurt gay people of every age.
The first year, the tournament donated funds to the Compass LGBTQ+ Community Center in Lake Worth to support its youth center and homeless youth outreach. The following two years, GPL chose SAGE, a national advocacy organization that looks out for LGBTQ+ elders who face financial hardship, challenges in finding care facilities that will accept them, and other, often unseen, barriers.
This year and last, GPL chose the onePULSE Foundation, established in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, to honor the legacies of the 49 people killed. The four pillars of the charity’s mission are to create and support a memorial, a museum, educational programs and scholarships for students who share the same ambitions as the victims.
McKenney credits Barbara Poma, owner of the Pulse nightclub and founder of onePULSE, for inspiring an exponential increase in giving — from $20,000 in 2020 to $135,000 in 2022 — through sharing her moving story at GPL events.
“OnePULSE is helping us move the needle toward visibility and acceptance,” McKenney said. “It also gives us an opportunity to give back to the LGBTQ+ community.”
It’s a needle that McKenney will never stop moving. His vision is for the tournament is to become a “massively successful $1 million fundraising event.”
“It can be done,” he said with the conviction of a polo player who sees nothing but an open field ahead.
Learn more about the onePULSE Foundation, this year’s beneficiary, at www.onepulsefoundation.org.