Pride Month: Bracelet-Winner Laplante Headlines Player Roundtable

Ryan Laplante

June is Pride Month. Dedicated to celebrating and commemorating LGBTQ+ pride, Pride Month is over 50 years old and started after the Stonewall riots, a series of gay liberation protests in 1969.

PokerNews will release a series of articles to mark Pride Month, showcasing the role LGBTQ+ individuals play in our industry and the discrimination they have faced. They will also highlight what they feel can be done to foster greater inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community in poker.

Poker is a game for everyone, and everyone should feel safe, welcomed, and included, no matter how they identify.

Today sees five individuals take part in a special roundtable to mark Pride Month. Here are the participants and how they identify:

  • Ryan Laplante (he/him): WSOP bracelet winner and poker player - gay
  • Poletti (they/them): Recreational poker player - pansexual
  • Zuly Bonilla (she/her): Poker workshop organiser and casual player - lesbian
  • Tom Feilding (he/him): Poker player and poker group organiser - gay
  • David Larson (he/him): Professional poker player - gay
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PokerNews: Thank you all for participating in this poker roundtable. I want to kick things off by finding out how you got into poker in the first place.

Ryan Laplante: I remember watching the WSOP on ESPN. Then, during college, I played online and in a weekly game with other college kids.

Zuly Bonilla: I love card games, so when I saw an intro to poker class, I decided to give it a try. I fell in love with the game immediately. There are so many layers to the game - mathematical strategy, emotional regulation, social dynamics, etc. Poker, in its pure form as a game, can never get boring.

Tom Feilding: I was taught by friends who were also absolute beginners. I then saw a poster in a pub for a league. I went along, soon ran the games and went from there!

David Larson: I've always loved strategy games. I got swept up in the early 2000s with the poker boom and played a lot of online tournaments in the evening after work.

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PokerNews: Thank you all for sharing. This may be a broad question, but have any of you encountered challenges or barriers as LGBTQ+ individuals in the poker world?

"Being both an LGBTQ+ individual and a poker player are both incredibly important aspects of who I am as a person"

Feilding: When I started playing around 20 years ago, it was not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+. Table chatter wasn't kind. Poker had a macho image. Although I was out to those I was closest with, I hid it from the vast majority.

Laplante: Being both an LGBTQ+ individual and a poker player are both incredibly important aspects of who I am as a person. I'd like to think the community is fairly open and accepting, at least when it comes to gay/lesbian/bi players.

Ryan Laplante

Bonilla: I had lots of experiences of men hitting on me or saying inappropriate things that made me extremely uncomfortable at the table. I'm a straight-presenting woman, so I was never harassed specifically about my sexuality, but poker just doesn't feel friendly if you're not a straight cis-man.

Larson: I once had a guy complain to the floor when he saw me checking a gay dating app during a cash game. Another time, a player called me a [slur] after he busted the final table. I never felt particularly unsafe, but I did feel more comfortable being out as a working professional in Chicago than as a poker player in Las Vegas.

"I once had a guy complain to the floor when he saw me checking a gay dating app during a cash game."

PokerNews: Thank you. David, have you noticed any differences in attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals in poker over the years?

Larson: I would not say things are bad, but I do think they are worse. The right-wing media has become an echo chamber completely detached from reality, fueled by grievance, and devoid of empathy. Currently, that grievance is targeted more at minorities, women and trans people than at gay men like me.

Poletti: I tend to hide my queerness at the poker table to avoid confrontation. For example, I have a lot of LGBTQ+ clothing that I choose not to wear at the tables.

Bonilla: I agree lately things seem to have gotten much more extreme, particularly with the trans-panic that so many people are exhibiting.

Tom Feilding
Tom Feilding

Feilding: I do feel like it's softened somewhat. I met my boyfriend playing poker in 2010, and our relationship didn't ruffle any feathers. Nowadays, everyone is much kinder and more inclusive.

Bonilla: Yeah, I'm not sure how much of [the hate] is just Twitter discourse and how much is showing up in live games, but it feels worse than before.

PokerNews: Zuly, do you have any LGBTQ+ figures in the poker world who have inspired or influenced you?

Bonilla: Vanessa Selbst. I met her a few times when she came to play some private games in our office. I was definitely inspired by the way she has always been proudly herself and obviously she's also an incredible player.

Vanessa Selbst

Laplante: Vanessa Selbst and Jason Somerville. They and the many others who are out make it a priority to be a good example of being LGBTQ+, as well as poker players.

Larson: Jason Somerville was an early role model of mine. I also thought, Ryan, that your speech after the Pulse nightclub shooting was very affecting. I think you do a good job of speaking out and giving back.

Jason Somerville

PokerNews: David, we've heard some stories of discrimination you've faced while at the tables, but does anyone else have any stories they'd like to share, and also what they did as a result?

Poletti: There are just these remarks from fellow players who think they can just casually drop it into conversation. I tend to go on tilt quite easily after hearing homophobic/transphobic remarks.

Laplante: I always try my best to de-escalate the situation, or laugh about it with friends afterwards.

PokerNews: Tom, David - as gay men, what can be done to make the poker world more welcoming?

Feilding: Focus on the T. Gays and lesbians are pretty much secure and safe and not treated badly at the poker table. Trans folk need to be encouraged to play.

Larson: I think the best way to make poker safe and welcoming for LGBT+ players is to make it welcoming for women and call out misogyny. When a player says something offensive to women, usually it's enough to say, "That's not called for."

Zuly Bonilla
Zuly Bonilla

Bonilla: I'd say I probably faced more negativity because I was a woman than I did because I was gay, but being constantly on guard still became exhausting. Even if I did mention my sexuality, that usually heightened the leering.

I handled it by stepping back from the poker scene. I eventually stopped playing in casinos, and I left my poker job to work at a software company instead. It sucks because I truly love poker, and every time I teach a workshop, I remember how passionate I am about it, but it stops being fun when the people you have to be around are hostile to who you are as a person.

PokerNews: That's tough, Zuly. What do you think can be done to foster a welcoming environment at the poker table or in the poker world?

Bonilla: The majority needs to step up and speak out. As long as the worst actors feel safe being vocal about their bigoted views, the community will continue to be hostile to LGBTQ+ people and anyone else who doesn't perfectly fit the mould.

Poletti: I think there needs to be both a zero-tolerance approach from tournament staff/venues and a change to the overall player base and their attitudes.

Bonilla: Bringing new players into the game is important to me because I came to the conclusion that I can't change current poker players who don't want to learn better or do better, but I can work to balance the scales by adding new people into the pool.

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Based in the United Kingdom, Will started working for PokerNews as a freelance live reporter in 2015 and joined the full-time staff in 2019. He graduated from the University of Kent in 2017 with a B.A. in German. He also holds an NCTJ Diploma in Sports Journalism.

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