How can thousands of nudges from one person help change a community? It starts with the heart.
“Mark Lee has a big heart for helping those that don't fit a cookie-cutter mold,” said Lupe Mares, Executive Director of Communities in Schools Benton-Franklin. “Mark will go against the grain even if it ruffles feathers because doing what's right is never wrong! He’s always working to bridge the gap of understanding to create a more unified and inclusive community.”
While it’s easy to see the breadth of Mark’s impact—through his help in creating, partnering, sustaining, and improving organizations focused on LGBTQ+ safety and rights, suicide prevention, and teen homelessness—there are countless stories of the effect Mark has had on individual people.
ESD coordinator Kristi Haynes shared one example: “A young man once shared with me that meeting Mark saved his life. He was contemplating suicide and felt he did not fit in anywhere. He was being bullied at school was afraid if he reported it his family would be deported. Mark reached out and invited him to the Vista Youth Center where he told me he finally realized he fit in somewhere. He also shared how seeing a gay man as a leader and role model inspired him. That young man is now an attorney and helping others.”
Mark’s path has taken him from a confused and closeted Catholic boy growing up in poverty stricken North Plainfield New Jersey to being a coalition builder in making the Tri-Cities a better place to live—especially for those on the margins.
As a young man, Mark served the Navy and was a nuclear submariner. He left the military in 1989 when he came to terms with the fact that he was gay. Coming out was just the start of his journey.
“Growing up poor and thinking I wasn’t worth shit, I was struggling. I called a friend of mine and he said, ‘Go to Context.’”
Context describes itself as “a 40-year-old program based on research into the factors that drive effective living.” Their mission is “to strengthen the fabric of goodwill that exists in the world.”
“So I went to Context and I said, ‘Okay, these are all the gifts that I got from my childhood, what can I do with them?’ and from that I said, ‘I need to give back to my community.’”
He volunteered on the board of the Equity Foundation in Portland, where he ended up at the conclusion of his time in the Navy. That board was the beginning of his long career of community service.
Mark came to the Tri-Cities in 2006 with his longtime partner. He remembers it as a much different place then than it is now.
“When I was first going to move to the Tri-Cities, my sister was literally like, ‘Are you gonna get killed? Are you okay?’”
The original plan was for his partner to get a leg up on his career and then transfer somewhere else. But the pressure of the Tri-Cities’ homophobic culture pushed them apart.
“I planned and decorated for an event for his work and we go to the party and he’s telling me, ‘Just say we’re friends’ and I’m like, ‘What? We’ve been together for 14 years.’”
Within months of moving to the Tri-Cities in support of his partner’s career, they split up.
Alone in a community that seemed to seethe with resentment of Mark’s core makeup, he was determined to make an impact. He started serving at Meals on Wheels and Planned Parenthood. He contacted the Pride Foundation in Seattle to find gay-friendly organizations where he could volunteer.
From there, he gathered a group of people he’d gotten to know to start Vista Youth Center as a safe place for LGBT youth.
In 2007, he assisted in leading the effort to organize the first public Pride event partnered with the Benton-Franklin Health District, Planned Parenthood, and local bars.
“There had been ‘Pride’ events before in the Tri-Cities, but they were all these little private events,” Mark said. He recognized the need for a public event where people could be open and public about their identity.
There’s a level of urgency that is present in all of Mark’s energy and efforts, and it comes from a very personal place.
“What motivates me are the things that make me cry, the injustice,” he said. “Almost everything that drives me is seeing those places where there’s not balance, there’s not equity. In Portland, I watched an entire generation pass away [due to HIV]. That makes everything more urgent.”
Brian Ace, Executive Director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties has seen Mark’s urgency in action over the past decade, especially for kids.
“Mark has been a driving force in our community for youth at the margins, regardless of the vocal criticism he’s faced,” Brian said. “He’s willing to rock the boat so others can sail on calmer waters. Countless youth in our community have a brighter future because of his focus on inclusion, opportunity, and emotional safety.”
Mark’s passion for kids connected to his desire to see people be able to come out safely has been a central part of what’s driven him for years. The statistics paint a clear picture of the connection between youth suicide and the shame and hopelessness felt by culturally oppressed LGBT youth, he says. The Center for Disease Control indicates that LGBT kids are three times as likely to seriously contemplate suicide as hetero kids.
This passion got him involved with the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, where he helped organize the first Walk About to Talk About Suicide in 2009. He began putting more time into educating people from all backgrounds and beliefs about the connection between suicide and the pain that LGBT kids face.
“One of the reasons I got so mad at so many people in this town [for not being out of the closet] is that, for the kid who’s feeling suicidal, by meeting a doctor or a lawyer who’s out, wouldn’t that tell them they have a future here? And that they can stay here, they don’t have to run to Seattle, struggle for 10 years feeling lonely, and then come back later.
“When I talk to the doctor who’s making a quarter or half million dollars who doesn’t want to come out, his daughter says, ‘you know, that’s going to ruin your practice.’ I’m like, some kid dying by suicide versus you ruining your practice… I get that they’re tough choices, but to me, this one’s the more urgent one. If you lost 10 clients, so what?
“Many people feel like their work is the definition of who they are or they really are worried about money and they’re not coming from a place of abundance, saying somehow the world will provide and we’ll always figure it out. That’s what Context gave me: that belief that, ‘You know what? I have enough—I can figure it out. And I’ll still get scared, but I’ll try anyway.’”
That attitude has carried him in all of his work.
“I tell people I don’t know what I’m doing, and I think at first, people thought I was making it up. I’m like, no, no, I’ve never done this. I’d never run a youth center. I’d never done events for Planned Parenthood. I’d never talked about women’s rights. I’d never done any of this. I’d show up and say, ‘I want to help.’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re in charge!’ The willingness to look stupid would be the core skill set I have—to be okay with being embarrassed.“
He began to see the role he could play in a greater story that was playing out as the Tri-Cities’ culture slowly shifted.
“I heard all these stories over and over about how anybody who tried to support (LGBT) youth, essentially got shit on, and since I didn’t have to work, and I didn’t have any history, I thought, I’ll just be the outsider and ask stupid questions. And I could say things that most locals wouldn’t because they’re worried (about repercussions). Somehow I became the guy willing to say it because I had nothing to lose. Other people want to say it, they just won’t.”
In 2010, he began to push for the rights of LGBT students to have safe and welcoming places in schools.
“I’m talking to some of the kids and they say, ‘Yeah, we have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in school.’ And I say, ‘Oh, cool, so they announce it over the intercom,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’ and I say, ‘Oh but you put up signs in the hallway,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ And I say, ‘So you have clandestine hidden clubs?’ and they’re like, ‘Well, yeah.’”
Mark began bringing the topic up at school board meetings, filming them, and asking questions. Eventually, he called Lambda Legal and the ACLU.
“I just asked them to send letters to kind of remind them of the laws,” he said. “And then eventually the superintendent gets up at a meeting and says, ‘I guess we’ve been breaking the law for 20 years.’”
In between the long list of things he was engaged in, Mark went on a date with Leon Sung, a PNNL researcher. Mark said he was so busy with work and volunteering he kept Leon at arm’s length for months.
“Eventually, I jumped in head first, suggesting we do a cross country road trip,” Mark said. “We had so much fun and crazy adventures, I realized I gotta keep this one!” The two were married in 2014.
The deep respect Mark and Leon have for each other just leaks out.
Mark’s commitment to supporting Leon in following his dreams has led them to plan to relocate to Sydney this summer. Leon is departing his position as senior staff scientist and technical lead in High Performance Computing Group at PNNL, headed to the University of Sydney, where he’s been recruited for a prestigious position as Senior Lecturer.
“Mark is everyone's everyday hero and champion who truly believes in humanity and justice and love—without the superhero shiny armor and magic wand,” Leon said.
Mark and Leon eventually would meet Ryan Wagstaff and as they spent their holidays together, Ryan would become a third member of their relationship as partners. They all view each other as family. Ryan originally met Mark through his campus organizing at WSU Tri-Cities. When he had no LGBTQ+ accepting family members to take to his LGBTQ+ award dinner, Mark and Leon became that family for Ryan.
Ryan is a researcher at Bloodworks Northwest, working on an FDA and community partnered project to remove the gay blood donation ban.
“I have never felt more included in the community that I lived in, and know wherever I am in the world Mark will leave an amazing impact in the world” Ryan said.
The same heart and passion for youth pushed Mark to start to look more closely at homelessness, which would become a core theme of his work, alongside LGBTQ+ and suicide prevention.
“40% of homeless youth identify as not straight,” Mark said. “When you look at the foster program, when you look at juvy, we’re overrepresented. If we’re 7 percent of the general population, why are we 20 and 30 percent in the system?”
His most recent work has been as a fundraiser for Communities in Schools Benton-Franklin, which has a key focus on child homelessness. Mark has turned his decade-plus of connections into helping support CISBF—the largest and fastest-growing chapter in the state.
“Bridge” is the word those who know his work most consistently use to describe him.
Kristi Haynes is one of Mark’s longtime collaborators. She says part of the long list of what makes Mark so unique is the way he has excelled at creating partnerships between unlikely groups and people, always finding ways to bridge the gap about what really matters.
“I’ve never known Mark NOT to challenge the status quo,” said Keri Lobdell, another of Mark’s collaborators and WSU Student Support Services specialist. “Mark is always inclusive and finds ways to connect any and all that are interested. He has a genuine desire to help the community and connect people to one another to accomplish good things.”
“I have always been impressed by Mark’s ability to disagree without being disagreeable,” said Mark Brault, president of Grace Clinic, who has collaborated with Mark on community projects. “He is a VERY effective bridge between disparate groups and is always working to build bridges rather than walls.”
As Mark has gotten to know people with very different views from his own, he came to a realization.
“I would go to coffee with people and have these conversations that were enriching them and me, where I’m getting to see, ‘Okay, I get it: you love people, you just don’t really understand their struggles.’ So the good part about this town is that I got to know so many people that I got to hear more than I’ve ever heard about people’s really inner thoughts. When I think if I had been back in Portland, I wouldn’t have gotten all of that connection and detail, just the top level of the story.
“The great value in being here has been getting to know people so well that I truly care about them, yet realize they’re completely blind to what’s right in front of them that’s causing their friends and family issues. You’re hurting your neighbor but you don’t even know it?”
Mark’s compassion for those he disagrees with comes from the time he’s spent getting to know and understand them as people.
“If people hadn’t been open enough to let me in their lives, I think I would feel more angry at them, but I get it. [This person] is a sweet, wonderful man, but he can’t see.”
Mark doesn’t consider himself any different or better than those he disagrees with.
“There’s a lot that I can’t see either. I need people in my life telling me what I can’t see about the way that I’m approaching something.”
At the same time, Mark has always been unflinching and uncompromising in openly and honestly stating what he believes.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Mark, you know, if you used that same energy, and come in and been more strategic, you would get more done.’ But that’s not the long-term game. You can get stuff done in the short term, but that kind of approach isn’t going to change the entire Tri-Cities. It’s been a hard choice. I think about that a lot.”
As Mark reflects on his years of service and the way that the Tri-Cities has changed, he focuses again on the importance of being honest and open about who we really are.
“Some of what I’ve focused on has been helping the visibility piece grow faster than it would on its own. And also just reminding people you’re allowed to say, ‘I’m different’ or ‘these are things that I want or I need.’ So that’s the piece I think I helped with. But at the same time, the community’s been changing and luckily I’ve been pushing in the same direction that the community’s going. And it feels so different than when I first got here. I was at Kagen’s a few months ago and there were like 12 people in the restaurant and 8 of them were gay and we were laughing. To me that’s so cool because before they would have all been there before, but they would not have felt safe and been out.”
Mark says that with the change in the culture and slow positive changes in the leadership in our community, the challenges LGBTQ+ people face in the Tri-Cities will lessen, but the growing homelessness worries him.
“They’re all symptoms of the system that says, ‘us and them,’ instead of ‘this is my neighbor.’”
The Tri-Cities is lucky to have counted Mark a good neighbor for 13 years. No doubt we’ll be grateful for the impact he’s had and the example in leadership he’s set for years to come.
“Mark is the best example of servant leadership I know. Because of him, the Tri-Cities is a safer, kinder place,” Kristi Haynes said.