One of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Mark Dann is doing his best to heed Mr. T.’s words. The charismatic Dann studied at the University of Natal in Durban in South Africa; has worked as a teacher trainer for the Peace Corps; spent time as a senior program officer for the National Democratic Institute in Chisinau, Moldova and Erbil, Iraq; and is one of the co-founders of Trekr, a gay-owned travel and adventure company that has been sailing into success with adventurous excursions around the world. In addition to his globe-trotting, Dann has racked up quite a résumé that includes political and nonprofit work including Senate campaigns, volunteer work and a stint as the interim executive director of DVLF.
PGN: You’ve traveled the world, but where did you start your journey?
MD: I grew up in Medford, N.J. A family of four: me, my parents and an older sister. I went to college at Rutgers and Drew University and throughout my professional career I was either living abroad or here in Philadelphia. Now I’m in Washington, D.C.
PGN: You’ve done a lot of work in politics. What was a highlight?
MD: Probably the most fun was the 2006 Liberty PA campaign to get rid of Rick Santorum. We were in charge of fundraising and rallying the LGBT votes and it was wonderfully successful.
PGN: That was such a crazy campaign. Other than the famous Google definition, what was memorable about it for you?
MD: What I remember the most was the feeling from the community of, “Yes, we can unite to get this guy out. He’s the number-one homophobe in the country and we can stop him.” People were super-excited about the election — they were volunteering and knocking on doors; it was pretty impressive for a mid-term election. I think it showed what people with left-of-center beliefs can do when we unite. I believe we’re going to see that same level of enthusiasm in the 2018 midterm elections. Oh, and I met my future husband during that campaign! He was working for HRC.
PGN: Nice! I love your financé’s name: Sultan Shakir. It sounds like an old-school movie star, right up there with Omar Sharif — but it sounds like he’s more of an adventurer than a film star.
MD: Yes, he’s one of the cofounders of Trekr. He’s been participating in nautical sports for over a decade and won three gold medals at the U.S. Masters in rowing. He was also a proud member of the D.C. Strokes. We both have American Sailing Association 104-level sailing certification. For his day job, he’s the executive director of SMYAL, an organization that works to support and empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
PGN: How did you get started in politics? What did you go to school for?
MD: Well, I went to Drew University and I created my own major: The International Political Economy. It was a combination of political science and economics. I included “study abroad” in the curriculum and they let me do it! So I got to go to Brussels and South Africa for school. It led me to a lot of incredible jobs and adventures.
PGN: What are you doing currently?
MD: I’m the federal-affairs director for Compassion & Choices. They are the oldest and largest organization dedicated to passing aid-in-dying legislation, increasing options and care at the end of life. Most people would know us as the organization advancing the End of Life Option Act. We’ve had recent victories in several states.
PGN: Basically the right to terminate?
MD: Yes, commonly referred to as Death with Dignity — the right for a mentally competent terminally ill adult to request a prescription or medication to hasten the dying process. It’s only for terminally ill people who are likely to pass on in the near future. We want to make aid in dying an open, legitimate option recognized throughout the medical field and permitted in more states.
PGN: That’s great, I’m all for it.
MD: A lot of this movement was born out of the LGBTQ-rights and the AIDS movements. It’s not an accident that the first Death with Dignity law was passed in 1994, which was around the height of the AIDS crisis. We find overwhelming support in our community for end-of-life options and it’s surprisingly something that has had good support from both sides of the political aisle.
PGN: Switching gears, how did Trekr come about?
MD: It was a wedding invitation on the other side of the world. A few of us had gone sailing in the British Virgin Islands and had a great time. We all wanted to do something together again so we made up a survey to see where we wanted to go next and what we liked and didn’t like about the first trip. It so happened that a friend of mine, who I met when I was working in Moldova at the National Democratic Institute, was getting married in Vietnam. Thailand was one of the top places on the list of where we wanted to go so we decided to do both. My partner at the time was the one with the sailing license so he planned it all out. A couple of us went and it was an incredible experience. More people heard about the trip and wanted to know where we were going next. So a group of us formed a company, worked up a new survey and our next trip was to Croatia. Our mission is to provide the trip of a lifetime with like-minded people in an inclusive and fun environment. Our next trip is to Greece and over the winter we’ll be going back to Thailand with an overland trip to Cambodia and Vietnam.
PGN: What was a favorite moment?
MD: Oh there are too many to pick one, but I’ll tell you one where I felt a feeling of accomplishment. Sultan, my fiancé, came to visit me when I was in Moldova. We were driving into the Ukraine for New Year’s, which in Russia and former Soviet countries, is a really, really big holiday. They go all out with tons of fireworks and parties and gift-giving, the president even gives a speech … it’s a big deal. On the way back, we got pulled over for speeding. Since I spoke a little Russian, my job was to talk with the cops. The Ukrainian road police had a very dubious reputation; basically you were going pay them and hopefully that was the worst that happened to you. We were clearly in the wrong — we had been speeding — and the officer was verifying it by showing me his radar gun and the rule book. He was friendly and I asked him what the fine was and it came out to about $40 American money. But then he said, “Aww, but the payment office is closed at this hour and I’m sure you want to go back to Moldova, so you can just give me the money.” I smiled back and said, “As long as I can get a receipt for it.” And he said, “You know what, it’s New Year’s. Why don’t you have a nice night and go home?” Sultan has a picture of me shaking hands with the cop as we went on our merry way. The funniest part for me is that we were clearly in the wrong — we were speeding; it’s not like he was trying to shake down some innocent party — but we ended up getting out of it because he was trying to make us pay a bribe for something we were guilty of! It may not sound like a big deal, but I was quite proud of myself for being stopped by the police at night and talking us out of a ticket in a foreign language!
PGN: Most memorable moment?
MD: In Thailand, we sailed out of Patong, which is a fun, vibrant city. They have these small alleys and back streets where they sell street food. The flavors and smells simmer all day and it’s fantastic. You just have to use your Spidey senses to navigate and you’ll find some amazing things there. My friends and I were in a restaurant in this little alley where they were selling shoes and other goods. There were food stands and restaurants and families and business people going through and everyone seemed to know each other. As all of this was happening, this little Western man comes in. Everyone was greeting him and kissing him on his head, being really nice. He sat across from us and said good morning even though it was night. As we looked closer, he seemed to not be all there; I think he had some kind of dementia. He started speaking and it wasn’t coherent but the Thai owner brought him some noodle/shrimp dish that wasn’t on the menu. I don’t think any money exchanged hands. It was beautiful. Somehow this senile man from another country knew that he could go to that little alley and that he would get a hot meal and be greeted and loved and taken care of. It was one of the most kind and wonderful things I’ve ever seen.
PGN: That sounds like when I was in Greece. When we went traveling up in the hills, the villagers took us in and fed us and invited us — total strangers — to stay in their houses.
MD: Yeah, we really try with Trekr adventures to integrate as much as possible with what’s real in each country so people can see more than what we see in the media. In Croatia, we went canyoning and wine tasting and scuba diving and to all sorts of historical sites. Some people jumped out of an airplane. I was not one of them …
PGN: Have you had to be cautious being an all-gay travel group?
MD: No. I mean, we go to places that are fairly gay-friendly. We’re not going to take any unnecessary risks. We were going to go to Turkey, but sadly we had to cross that off because of the climate there. It’s a shame because Turkey is one of my favorite places on the planet. It’s sad that we can’t go there anymore. But for the most part, we haven’t had any problems and we have a big gay rainbow flag flying proudly and boldly on our ship. The last night of every trip we have a big ceremony where we launch paper lanterns. In Croatia, we were in a tiny harbor area and the local fire captain gave us a little section where we couldn’t burn anything down. As people in the town came out, we shared the lanterns with them and there you had all these LGBT folks partying with the villagers and everyone having a great time. It was extraordinary.
PGN: Any hobbies outside of traveling and politics?
MD: We have a small child; her name is Blanche and she’s a Chihuahua/Jack Russell/terrier mix. She’s great fun with a lot of energy so I love going for walks with her.
PGN: Tell me about a fun family member.
MD: One thing I miss about being in Philly is being able to cross the Ben Franklin and visit my family in Cherry Hill. My mom said, “The first couple of weeks after you left, I kept making extra portions for Sunday dinner.” I used to spend Sunday night with my parents and Monday night was for my grandmother. She was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever met. Before she died she asked, “Did you think of me as your grandmother?” and I said, “No, you were always my friend,” and she said, “I thought that too.” She didn’t have a lot of money, but she saved what she had and when I was 16, she took me to Paris. It was my first time out of the U.S. We had the best time, going to restaurants and museums and seeing the sights and just enjoying each other. I know how much she saved and sacrificed to do that and I’m eternally grateful. I loved spending time with her, whether it was having fun adventures or just sitting quietly when she got older.
PGN: What was your childhood like?
MD: I was a dork. Your typical awkward, gay teenager.
PGN: Now you’re a buff sailor traversing the world. When did the duckling turn into the swan?
MD: I don’t know. I remember once when I was swimming in college, my coach started poking me in the chest and playfully saying, “Mark, you’re the skinniest motherfucker I’ve ever seen!” When the season was ending, he pointed out to me that I was doing max reps with the weights and said, “Look at you now. I guess puberty just came a little late for you.”
PGN: That’s funny.
MD: Yeah, I still swim, formerly with the Philly Fins and now with the D.C. Athletic Club. I love swimming because your main opponent is the clock and it doesn’t care who you are. It’s just, get in the water, move forward and we’ll see you when you get back to the wall.
PGN: Any tattoos or piercings?
MD: No, I have a low tolerance for pain.
PGN: Actor you’d want to do one scene with?
MD: Marlon Brando circa “Julius Caesar” and Denzel Washington, “Devil in a Blue Dress” era.
PGN: The most unusual food you’ve eaten?
MD: I’ve had a dish that’s basically a Russian meat Jell-O.
PGN: Ick. The last two shows you binge-watched?
MD: “Big Little Lies” and “Better Call Saul.”
PGN: What’s on your nightstand?
MD: I have a goal to read as many Pulitzer Prize winners as possible. I just finished reading “The Sympathizer” and it was extraordinary.
PGN: Last question. Now that America is great again (ha!), why should we trek anywhere else?
MD: I think because you’ll get perspective and see how America really is and can continue to be great. It can help you start thinking of other possibilities, other voices and other ideas. When people travel abroad, you get to see that some things in other countries are better, some things are worse and a lot of things are just different. n
For more information about Trekr, visit www.trekr.org.