Sultan Shakir: Music & Medicine

Sultan Shakir

There’s a lot going on at the Mazzoni Center, Philadelphia’s health and wellness center for the LGBTQ+ community. There are so many things available at the center, I’m not going to try to list them all. You can go to the website for that. I decided to use this space to get to know the charming new President and Executive Officer, Sultan Shakir. I’ll confess, there was a lot of laughing and smiling throughout the conversation, just what the doctor ordered. 

Tell me a little about growing up in Philly.

My parents divorced when I was young so I grew up in two parts of the city. One was in North Philadelphia, which was fun because my cousins and my grandmother lived on the same block. We lived in the house my dad grew up in, and it was one of those little close knit neighborhoods where we knew everybody who lived there. We’d have block parties and there was a really strong sense of community that was wonderful. And then we were also with my mom in East Oak Lane, but I’d say most of my development was in North Philly. 

What was your favorite game out on the street? Kick the can; hide and seek; stickball?

[Laughs] So, I wasn’t very good at the games that other boys played. I was more interested in learning how to Double Dutch and stuff like that. I wasn’t the kind of kid to join in a pickup game of basketball! I was never good at sports that involved throwing something or catching something. 

[Laughing] Well, that’s most of them!

I know! They never really clicked for me but as a kid. I really got involved in the arts. I started playing the violin and then switched to the bass. I was really into both jazz and classical music. That was my extracurricular activity outlet. 

So did little Sultan have to carry around a big ass bass?

I did! And the funny thing is that I also played the tuba. So I had to carry that around too. And the school didn’t have a case for the tuba so I had to carry it around in a black trash bag! 

That should count as a sport, you must have built up some muscles toting those two things around! 

Yeah, it was a lot. 

What did the parents do?

Both of them are school teachers. My mother still teaches, my dad is retired and my stepmom teaches. So there were a lot of educators in the parental space. 

Do you have siblings or are you an only child?

We’re a blended family, so there were anywhere between three to six kids in the house at one time, but 10 of us total when you add all the step brothers and sisters who were also between their parent’s homes and ours. I also have a sister who is 17 years younger than me so we didn’t grow up together but one of the nice things about being back here in Philly is that we’re able to really develop our relationship. We had a nice lunch together recently.  

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, in high school when I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go to college. It was a choice between being a pilot, because I wanted to become an astronaut, or being a musician. Interestingly enough, well you may not find it interesting, but I made the decision to go for music because I was like, ‘Well, I want to fly for the Navy because I heard they have better runs as pilots but I probably couldn’t take my double bass on an aircraft carrier. There’s not really space for that, but I could become a musician and then learn to fly on my own. I figured I’d be able to keep both of the loves of my life by going the musician route”. So I chose to study music, and though I was also really passionate about it, I’ve never really learned to fly. I did fly once but I haven’t gone down the path of that dream as much.

Now how did you fly that once without a pilot’s license?

I was in a small private plane with a friend of the family who knew how to fly. I didn’t actually fly the plane! [Laughing] I meant that I got to go up and sit in the cockpit and lightly touch the controls while we flew around. 

Oh good, I had visions of them saying, “Here you try it!” and going for a bathroom break. Back to reality, where did you go to college?

I went to Johns Hopkins to study music. 

How did you go from a music major to the path that you’re on now in the non-profit arena?

So, I was in college and I got a job as a community organizer. It was from a job listing that I saw in City Paper and I fell in love with the work. Through that community organizing work I really started to see how many systems in the US are set up against people like me as opposed to the idea of the American dream where all you have to do is apply yourself and everyone is rooting you on to succeed; the dream that poverty exists but that we’re all working to fairly and equally help everyone. I quickly realized that that’s not the case, and it caused me to start thinking that while I was young, I wanted to do something to help change the world. That activism work led me to doing a lot of work in community engagement and building power for marginalized communities. 

I was appointed to the D.C. Police Reform Commission, I worked for over 9 years for the Human Rights Campaign as a Regional Field Director and a Youth & Campus Program Director, and I was the Executive Director of SMYAL, which stands for Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders and it is the largest Washington, DC metro area service organization solely dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth. I’ve been fortunate enough to develop more and more skills that have allowed me to lead non-profits and that has led me here to the Mazzoni Center! 

That’s a lot! Do you remember any specific situations that really moved you where you helped someone else and had an “A-ha” moment?

Oh gosh, so many, but one that stands out was when I was working with HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and we would bring queer & Trans HBCU students for a conference to talk about how to make the schools become more welcoming. One time there was a workshop that we were doing where we had all of the students standing in a circle and they’d step into the circle if a statement was true for them, or stay put if it wasn’t. The statement was, “Have you consistently been told that being gay was a sin?” and almost all of the students stepped into the circle. Having grown up Muslim and Black, it was such a relatable moment for me, and through that work we were able to help the students create a sense of community that really helped them and gave them the strength to help change the culture on campus. So that “A-ha” moment was that by talking about collective pain and trauma, you could turn it into something empowering by coming together and owning the fact that we are all loved and beautiful and whole and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that. 

For you, growing up in the Muslim community, what was one of your favorite things about it? And what was challenging?

There was a sense of community, my parents were really involved, I was studying the Quran, and there was a really strong social network. The challenge was what that network says about certain aspects of who I am and the space that people give themselves to be incredibly bigoted. There was actually someone in my house once who told me that Muslims take gay people to the highest roof they can find and throw them off. I wasn’t out to that person, but I knew that I was gay at the time and just hearing someone say that as part of casual conversation, in your own home? Like, what?!

What are the misconceptions?

That although there are people like the guy at my house, there are a lot of progressive Muslims out there as well. There are Muslim leaders who support the LGBTQ community and Muslim organizations who support the community. So the misconception is that all Muslim people are homophobic and that’s definitely not the case. 

Back to your music, what was your best music moment? And what was your last performance?

I did a lot of gigging and once got hired to play with the Clark Sisters! When folks realize that you’re a professional who shows up on time and is easy to work with, you start getting booked for jobs like that. The last time I played was just a few weeks ago at a funeral. I played the cello for my grandparent’s funeral and other family members heard it and one of them requested that I play recently. I’m now the funeral cellist of the family.

What are some of the new things happening at the center?

We just got approved to give vaccinations to youth ages 5-11, which is new in the community, so that will be happening soon. We’re going to be expanding the programming at the Washington West location and we have a number of other things in the works. It’s exciting!

Sultan Shakir

What has been the most fulfilling thing you’ve heard since you’ve been here?

I think hearing from the patients and clients about the amazing care that they receive here at Mazzoni. The providers who work here are some of the best that are out there. We have one client who travels all the way from Connecticut just to access care with the center. Hearing those stories shows me the need for the Mazzoni Center. 

When did you come out?

I think the first conversations were with two of my friends in high school. I remember sitting down with one of them and telling her I had something to tell her, and she told me she had something to show me and we did the little, ‘You go first, no you go first’ dance and I finally told her that I was gay, and she said, ‘That’s great, anyway, I just discovered silver tarnish remover! Look at what happens when you use it!’ She was super excited about that; me being gay was like nothing. 

When I told my other BFF she was like, “I knew you were gay. My mother told me. That’s why you were allowed to spend the night at my house!” So it was really easy with friends but slightly different with my family. I remember sitting one day behind the cafeteria at college and thinking that if it’s bad to be gay, it’s even worse to lie about it. As fate would have it, a few months later I was visiting home, and my boyfriend at the time called the house and was really upset about some Capri pants (at that time most guys didn’t wear that sort of thing). The hem had come out and he was beside himself, so I told him to come to Philly and we’d go shopping for some new pants. This was back before cell phones and you’d have landline phones all over the house so that if someone was on the phone and you picked it up in another room, you could hear everything that was said. 

In this case, one of my parents heard our entire conversation and confronted me with it. I didn’t lie, and um, let’s say it did not go well. But it was the start of a journey. They needed to process it, just like I did at first, and now they’re great. 

I’m giggling inwardly because I just had an image of the unsuspecting boyfriend showing with the torn Capri pants and your parents answering the door! It would make a funny short film, but I imagine things are better now because you have a hubby. Someone I profiled a while back, Mark Dann. When did you get married?

I proposed in 2016 and we got married a year later. Mark and I love the water and sailing. I prefer to be on top of the water, and he’s a swimmer. So I took him out on the water to pop the question. I think he had a hint because I brought a big garment bag on the boat with us. I had planned it so that our family and friends were going to meet us for a surprise engagement party after I proposed. Since he thought we were just going for a sail, we were dressed casually so I brought us something to wear for the party. 

You have to look good for the pictures!

Exactly! I had these cute little matching outfits with scarves, it was fun. Except on the way back, I sailed the boat really close to the land so that the photographer could get some pictures of us on the boat. Unfortunately, I sailed us right over a sandbar and we got stuck! Most people had no idea of what was going on. We kept waving and smiling while we were trying to rev the engine and get us out. People who know boats know sailboats shouldn’t just stop in the water unless they hit something, so they were trying to send us a dinghy to help. But we finally got clear and were able to back the boat up and around and join the party. 

Ha, that sounds like a sitcom adventure too! How about a song that always cheers you up?

“Can you feel a brand new day?” from “The Wiz.”

Great song. What’s the most interesting thing you can see from your house?

I have a school across the street from my house and usually, you can just see the kids playing outside and parents after school. But when I first moved in I noticed that every Friday, at around 5pm, I would see these gay bears walking down the street. I had no idea what was going on but later discovered that there was a bar down the street that hosted a Bear happy hour! And there they went!

Ever fail a class? If so, which one?

Oh God yeah, I was working on a double major of performance and recording arts and I had a class in “circuits and signals” and I apparently have no comprehension for electricity, circuits or signals. 

As a kid, did you love or hate your name? 

I thought it was great, my middle name is Abdus Salaam, so together it means Keeper of Peace, though my parents did find out later from an old Arabic speaking woman that they’d even been pronouncing it wrong and saying the Americanized version of the name. She said, “That’s not that boy’s name! It’s pronounced Sool-TAHN.” 

Well, now we all know. Thanks for your time!