To me, all of it was more enticing than sitting on the sidelines and watching the game. Teams were my inspiration, perseverance my responsibility, and risks were simply the next opportunity to feel butterflies in my stomach – whether I liked them at the time or not.
Suggesting that my leap into the adult world of professional employment after college was a sluggish, muted hell for me would be an understatement. It wasn’t long after I sunk into the warm, slow waters of the Centers for Disease Control outside of Washington, DC in 1996 that I yearned for the next battle, thirst for the next debate or stalked my environment for the challenge du jour. Unfortunately, my government pay grade simply didn’t reward such imagination or innovation and it was clear it never would. So, I jumped out of my proverbial, professional plane without a shoot and came crashing down into South Florida, onto Compass’ doorstep in Palm Beach County – a place declared, like an umpire, to be “safe!”.
Back then Wilton Manors had only just begun to change the face of Fort Lauderdale. If gays flew south from Palm Beach County, they often searched for salvation and either found it in South Beach or at the Copa. There were a few places that were either gay-owned or occupied in Lake Worth or West Palm Beach. Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t out yet, no one knew who Will & Grace were, and even fewer knew that Compass was a gay and lesbian community center with hopes of one day becoming a focal point for community organizing and action.
That idea, however, seemed grand and inspirational to me as a single, mid-20’s gay guy with a degree in my pocket and an unquenchable hunger for adventure. I completely bought in.
Today, nearly fifteen years later, I can barely see straight. By that I really mean that I hardly ever see narrow anymore. The fault lines of social justice have moved north of our county, and the remnants of bigotry and hate that might exist have become marginalized to the point of invisible. What may have once separated Palm Beach County as the redheaded stepchild of gay-friendly South Florida has been fixed by something bigger and better than road expansion or public transportation – something more akin to public participation and accommodation.
Now, so many people and businesses and organizations surround us, providing so many opportunities to enjoy each and every day that I could write about it for hours – but I won’t. Instead, I have asked co-workers and colleagues to join me in giving a community-centered voice to the many people who love, live and play happily, in Palm Beach County – one of the best places in the country to reside.
I underestimated the sidelines when I was a young adult. Back then I thought that walking off the field meant sitting in the stands. But like my father told me years ago, there is no pleasure in running anything if you never take the chance to walk. And we, at Compass, aren’t the only ones enjoying our turf. So, over the next few months we are going to take the opportunity, in partnership with the South Florida Gay News, to show you why. I hope you will follow us on this adventure and see why we are having so much fun enjoying pride in Palm Beach County.
Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass, the gay and lesbian community center of Lake Worth and the Palm Beaches. Follow him on twitter: @Tonyplakas