January 4, 2018

Tony’s own journey began at Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania. After spending two full years on campus and looking for a way to feel more connected, he joined the Sigma Chapter of Phi Sigma Pi. At the time, the Chapter was still feeling the effects of a monumental transition, one from all male to co-ed. “There were a lot of strong feelings about the move, but the conversation on gender had a profound impact on me,” said Tony.  Sigma Chapter was the last Chapter in Phi Sigma Pi to make the transition to co-ed (now gender-inclusive). With failed recruitments, low membership and the threat of being shut down, the Sigma Chapter split with some Brothers going inactive and others complying to the co-ed standards. The transition was fully complete by 1990, but the effects of the split rippled on: “As a young man, I don’t know if I had ever really thought about how diminishing it was to women who were told they could not be part of an honor fraternity because they were female. I learned to look at the world through a different lens and it has impacted me throughout my life.”

Tony went on to serve as Sigma Chapter’s Initiate Advisor and then President from 1993-1995. “Tony was my Initiate Advisor, and I pretty much decided I wanted to join as soon as he walked in front of the group,” said Claudia Harrison (Sigma Chapter ‘95). She explains that “Tony was able to energize us to do more than socialize; we did meaningful community service,” and that Tony has always had a presence and assuredness about him. Claudia says that because of Tony’s poise and energy, people “just wanted to be part of whatever organization he was chosen to represent, and which he deemed worthy of his commitment. Tony balances being supportive and also providing a challenge to anyone who gets involved with a cause he finds important.”

Tony Plakas
Tony posing with Julie Seaver, Compass Community Center's Chief Operations Officer, at the Gala.

That important cause would be LGBTQ rights, something very close to Tony’s heart as an openly homosexual man. Being a leader in Phi Sigma Pi inspired him to continue to lead on a national level. “I know not all who join Phi Sigma Pi had the privileges I had, but there was a definite feeling that we were powerful when we worked together, respected for the work we did and better because we were part of something that reached far beyond our own Chapter. I learned in Phi Sigma Pi that we could have a national impact.” Therefore, after graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a Reference Specialist for the Center for Disease Control’s National AIDS Clearinghouse. In 1997, he left D.C. to join Compass Community Center’s fight against HIV transmission in South Florida, a journey that would put him on a path of excellence. He started out as their HIV Prevention Director and in only two years, Tony was named the Executive Director of Compass, a role he has now occupied for twenty years.

Tony Plakas
Moments before Tony accepted his award.

Under the leadership of Tony, Compass has grown into one of the largest and most respected LGBTQ Centers of its kind in the nation. “I believe I lead a team of heroes - people who fight hard to assure equality and understanding with commitment and passion,” says Tony. Compass offers a plethora of valuable services such as support groups, HIV prevention and testing as well as youth mentoring programs. This year, 2017, Tony was recognized for his twenty years of leadership at Compass. Claudia, who is now a regular attendee and supporter of Compass events, says “the best way to describe his leadership at Phi Sigma Pi [was] enthusiastic, and full of integrity and inclusiveness. That definitely is mirrored in how he leads Compass.”

Tony Plakas & Compass
Compass Community Center Staff attended the Gala to support Tony. They filled up three tables!

It is this leadership that caught the attention of the Harvey Milk Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes Harvey Milk’s legacy and recognizes others who do the same. On May 6th, 2017, Tony received the Harvey Milk Foundation Diversity Honors Award at the Third Annual Diversity Honors Gala in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When asked how it feels to be the recipient of this prestigious award, Tony says, “In 1977 [when Tony’s work began], I never even thought there would be an award for my work.” At that time, though there was an increase in HIV awareness and support, there was still a very negative stigma pinned on LGBTQ individuals. “My work wasn’t popular in 1997, before Ellen was out or Will & Grace became must see TV,” says Tony. “The federal government had just passed laws like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. Then state after state passed terribly regressive and insulting laws keeping the loving relationships of same-sex couples from being recognized by our government.” He states that, “It was the darkest time for LGBTQ people in history, and the underlying goal of our mission was to give young people, those living with HIV and transgender people hope. So, in many ways, having my name on an award named after Harvey Milk is just about as great as it can get.”

Tony Plakas
Stuart Milk (pictured on the right), Harvey Milk's nephew was the one to hand Tony his award.

Look around today. Though we have made great strides, there is still work to do in creating an inclusive culture in our world. For those looking to continue Harvey Milk’s legacy, as Tony does, his advice is simple but powerful: get involved. Tony says, “After I joined Phi Sigma Pi, I became the manager of our college wellness center and I was the lead for annual student orientation, conducting large group seminars on issues like date rape and sexual harassment. Phi Sigma Pi taught me what it took to get involved, and I did. And oddly enough, what it takes to get involved in college is not dissimilar to what it takes to make a difference in the ‘real world.’”