Earlier this year, while writing for another publication, I did a piece on gay men (bears really) who you should know. Meaning, who is making a positive and upbeat change for the community. When I asked my Facebook friends who should be on this, Ali Mushtaq's name kept getting tagged over and over again. I thought, wow, this guy is popular. Then I got to know him, and understood why he needed to be featured.
Ali's story is quite spectacular, emotional, and awe-inspiring all at the same time. He is an openly gay Pakistani-American, living in Long Beach, California, who has conquered the leather scene and most recently won Mr. Long Beach Leather in 2016.
Not only that, but he has helped raise a ton of money for HIV/AIDS, including the APLA and the Minority AIDS Projects. His goals, however, are on a much larger scale in terms of showing who he truly is in hopes that others who don't identify as the "norm" in the gay world can find their place without fear of judgment or ridicule.
Ali spoke with me at Instinct Magazine about his ride in the leather community, the underbelly of racism & discrimination that still happens in it, his supportive family, and why he wants his story to be seen on Ellen, Oprah, and so much more.
So you are a gay Pakistani-American living in Long Beach, California and you play a massive part in the leather scene. There's pride in a lot of that sentence, but which do you find yourself the most proud of?
Because of the experience, I mostly learned to take pride in me and my values. Being a leatherman means staying true to oneself. It took a long time for me to realize I had to live life for myself and not for other people, may it be in the leatherworld or non-leatherworld. I had to stay true to not only what I was sexually into, but also, what I saw as morally just. If on some level those people did not accept that, I learned to be comfortable standing on my own and fighting for what was right.
Why do you find that the Pakistani culture is still very anti-LGBT, and do you think there will ever be somewhat of a solution in our lifetime?
Warped interpretations of Islam affect how Pakstanis see homosexuality. Homophobia, transphobia, and sexism play major roles in spreading stigma about alternative sexualities and overall gender equality in the country. For example, same-sex sexuality is still a criminal offense in Pakistan. A lot of same sex relations are looked down upon in a lot of Pakistani families. Most same-sex sexuality is done on the “down-low.” However, while trans people face violence and stigma, there are some progressive elements of the society, namely for transrights where transpeople have certain civil rights protections (albeit not complete protection), are able to organize (especially when Pakistan miscalculated trans demographics), and are able to differentiate their gender nonconforming identities from Western transpeople
I know you come from parents who are very supportive of you. What was the coming out process like?
Well my grandparents, my mom, and my immediate aunt/uncle are supportive of my sexuality. My dad is at a place where it’s something he doesn’t discus my sexual orientation, but he knows it’s there. There was a period when I was in high school and we didn’t talk, but eventually he got over it.
There were still challenges. It was still difficult because I went to a high school that was very fundamentalist Christian, and sexual diversity wasn’t something anyone was interested in. They painted me as the defacto weird kid. Thankfully, I had a supportive high school English teacher, Ms. Hawk, who supported me in my senior year. So it was tough being gay at school and it wasn’t until I was in college where I was able to explore my sexual identity.
What is your take on racism in the gay world in 2017, and who do you think gets it the worst?
To some extent, we know that if you’re not white, you’re automatically discriminated against. We are slowly becoming aware that our sexual preferences can be racist, mainstream bars and porn routinely underrepresent people of color on advertising, and that mainstream LGBT nonprofits (especially relating to STIs/HIV/AIDS) are slowly becoming aware that sexuality couples with issues of race and ethnicity.
Unfortunately, combating this kind of racism is difficult and it takes people from backgrounds, especially progressive-minded Whites, to listen to people and not ignore their realities, being aware of the world outside of their White spaces, publicly call out racism against people of color on social media and other public interactions, educate themselves on issues related to race, making more friends of color, and deliberately making choices that give voice to people of color.
I understand systematic discrimination against Blacks and Latinos, especially when it comes to systematically silencing their voices, being shut out of mainstream and leather LGBT spaces, dealing with police brutality and wealth inequality, and being hit disproportionately by the HIV/AIDS virus. It’s especially hard being a woman or trans and belonging to a non-White ethnic group.
I can only speak to my experiences about being South Asian. My ethnic group (South Asian) that’s not well represented in American culture period. For example, if you’re Black or Latino in America, you have groups that are automatically familiar with your cultural heritage. You have institutions and media that are dedicated to your experience. When most people think “Asian” they picture someone that’s from South East (Vietnam, Philippines, etc), Central (China), or East (Korea or Japan) Asia.
Being South Asian, you don’t have a culture in America, a defacto support group. You don’t have any role cultural role models. Then there’s being Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist which have their own challenges. It’s tough cause there’s no mold or formula, so you have to carve out a space for yourself and others.
What got you into the leather world, and are you shocked it has brought you as far as it has?
I got into the leather world based on the promise that it was sexually radical and dedicated to social equality. I find that while it was important to give the leather community a platform, it was also important to bring recognition to other social injustices, such as diversity problems in America. I’m really humbled that the outside world is slowly opening its doors and is starting to accept stories like mine as being part of the American fabric.
What's been your best moment in the leather scene and why was that so special?
It was the first time I had an intensive flogging session in San Francisco. The person that flogged me was Asian and it showed me that I too could be part of this world even though I was brown. I too could be a leatherman.
What is your focus going into next year in terms of your overall goals in life?
I’m going to focus on taking my story/message to multiple platforms. Nine months ago I did receive an offer from a production company about making a potential show about my experiences. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out because I don’t have an agent and I was afraid of selling my story unrepresented.
So for now, my next goal is to take leather and BDSM to more mainstream outlets, such as Logo, NewNowNext, and World of Wonder. I see that those outlets cater to the gay community, but it would be great to expand into give other subgroups like bears and leather people representation on those platforms. I want the idea of accepting one’s body type, self, and whatever sexual interests that they have to become mainstream. I want to be a part of conversations on the View, Ellen, Oprah, and to really get the masses to understand our communities. In general, I want to be a part of media that create spaces for diversity and dialogue: trans people, queer women, people of color, being HIV positive, being of size, being disabled, etc. I also want to start aiming to potentially start a YouTube channel if those avenues don’t work.
I also want to start public speaking at more events and universities about diversity and inclusion. I’m slowly getting a website together to make things more official.
In life, I want to continue my academic career, finish my PhD (dissertation is being edited professionally atm) and get an assistant professorship somewhere.
Leather Communities have been at the forefront of HIV prevention. Do you think we are doing enough to reach racial minorities in our efforts for HIV/AIDS prevention?
In addition to being a leatherman, I am also a trained medical sociologist. Recently, we’re finding that PrEP is mostly reaching gay White men and we really need to start reaching many non-White communities. For example, people of color, especially Black and Latinos, are still projected to have an increase in the number of HIV/AIDS cases in the coming years. Asian HIV rates, though low, can be potentially underreported because of various cultural and language barriers. Thus, we need to step up efforts to target these communities to ensure everyone has access to effective HIV prevention and treatment options.
Anything else you want to add?
There is still a tremendous amount of racism and discrimination within the leather community. It’s mostly coming from folks who still think that being Tom of Finland (the old school leather icon) is what our community should look like. Many White men, who fit the stereotypical image of a leatherman, still think diversity is divisive. Obviously, we have our White allies, but a lot of the time, White leathermen think leather is about having fun with the caveat of having fun at other people’s expense.
So the leather community, while generally accepting, still has a long way to go. A lot of them see people of color’s place in the community as volunteers, but not necessarily as its representatives. For example, a lot of leather media rarely focuses on the experiences of people of color, especially ones that have done a lot for people in the leather and mainstream causes. Additionally, leather contests, leather orgs, and leather people in general can sometimes also shut people out because of their race, being a woman, or being trans. Here, progressive-minded Whites have to do more in helping to give light and credence to others in the community.
While these problems exist, I am still optimistic that we can work together to find solutions to these problems.
Ultimately, I am humbled to have been placed in a position where my voice can matter to both leather and mainstream audiences. Especially, I’m honored to be of service to people who feel alienated regardless of their background. I was an honor to reach who are afraid to come out because they fear death and violence. If I can help those people, then I feel like that is its own reward.
More on Ali here.