Michael Sinan Thomsen (who is Muslim and was also interviewed by Il Grande Colibrì) won Mister Gay 2012. There have been also many other LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) beauty contests with Islam devotee participants. Yet, Ali Mushtaq’s attendance at the International Mr. Leather competition created much fuss, and numerous media front page articles about this particular Muslim, gay, fetishist from Pakistan.
His story is fascinating: starting from his family origins, which are more complex than what one adjective could ever encompass. “My grandparents (on my mom’s side) moved to the United States from Burma (Present-day Myanmar). At the time, the Burmese government took over businesses and forced factory owners (like my grandparents) off their properties. They had to move to Pakistan and they had my mother. After that, they eventually moved to the United States. When my dad married my mom, he moved to the U.S. and I was eventually born in California, United States.”
Ali’s childhood was composed, perhaps to a fault: “I was raised in a conservative part of California, called Orange County. It was a place with lots of families, and not much to explore.” But things changed with puberty: “Around my early teens, I felt different from other kids. I didn’t understand what it was like to be physically attracted to the opposite sex. I just knew that it was something that was expected from me because of what I saw around me. Thankfully, I grew up in the internet age and found I was attracted to men. I explored yaoi and barra (gay Japanese manga) and found myself extremely attracted to those men. Eventually, I started realizing I had a crush on men in real life.” He laughs.
Ali’s coming out happened at 15 years old: “I came out to my aunt and uncle first. I came out at a family party when I casually mentioned it to my aunt. With shock, she told my uncle to talk to me. That night, my uncle took me on a car ride and I explained the situation. They became generally ok with my sexuality. I then told my grandparents. At first they thought that I was trans because they didn’t understand that one can desire the same-sex without being the opposite sex. That period of bewilderment lasted for a bit and then they came to terms with it. My mom was in Pakistan at the time, and she wasn’t happy. But after this period, they’ve been fully supportive of me. I’ve been truly blessed to have them in my life.”
Although, his family took it well, his coming out created some problems within the Muslim community: “So many people in the Muslim community say that being gay and Muslim are not compatible. They see you as an apostate or someone that has left Islam. I’ve seen many comments online where people have attacked this identity”. The biggest issue is Ali’s love for leather and BDSM: “Some Muslims don’t see you as Muslim. Other Muslims understand being “gay,” but they don’t understand being a gay man into leather. Leather, for these people, is taboo.” Sadly, he received verbal abuse but thankfully he was never physically abused.
The LGBTQIA and Leather community are not always the most welcoming neither, and sometimes the colorful rainbow seems to bleed out into a massive senseless white. “It’s like any environment where you are the only one of something. Generally, I’ve been treated respectfully, but sometimes, you feel like you don’t belong. When people post things online, they don’t post things about your holidays or your lifestyle. For example, when Ramadan and Eid came around, only a few people in the leather community acknowledged it. However, when Christmas rolled around, everyone, including those that don’t celebrate it, acknowledged the holiday season. So you feel left out sometimes.”
Some people liked to be direct: “I’ve seen people in the leather community that say ‘You have to choose sides’ and ‘You can’t be both.’ This isn’t realistic for many gay Muslims, and even, many progressive Muslims.” The intolerant wave surrounds also the Leather community: “You also see a lot of political posts on Facebook in the leather community. While I feel like it’s important to acknowledge all forms of inequality (sexism, homophobia, racism, and transphobia), I feel sometimes Islamophobia is something leather folks seem to ignore.”
Ali thinks the situation is even worse in Europe than in the United States: “In Europe, issues of racism tend to be swept under the rug. From my experience, I haven’t seen many European discussions about being of color and preventing racism in their BDSM/fetish communities. I feel like a lot of Europeans, especially in BDSM, don’t understand what is it like to be someone of color or to be someone who is not white. I hear that people say and do racist things and don’t recognize it.
“Leather people in the European BDSM/fetish community are afraid to speak up against bigotry because they fear they will be left out – continues Ali – We in America are very attuned to these differences because I feel that we’re more open about discussing these problems.”
Yet, there seems to be hope: like the opening of an inclusive mosque, and the openly gay imam. “It’s wonderful because now, gay Muslims have an opportunity and place to explore their sexuality without fear of at least a government persecuting them for their sexual orientation. Yes, they still might have problems from family, friends, and community members. However, I think gay friendly mosques and more progressive mosques in general can help gay and progressive people within Islam. It provides both a religious and cultural ties to an accepting community, as well as a place where more progressive ideas about the Islamic religion can flourish.”
Among the signs of hope, Ali mentions “Allah Loves Equality“, the project supported by the Grande Colibrì which was born as an awareness campaign and which will become a documentary about Pakistani LGBTQIA conditions [Produzioni dal Basso]: “I think that it is valuable to help reach people that need to hear their stories told. Also, it provides further understanding to people outside of Islam that Islam houses many kinds of individuals. It shows that Muslims are not all terrorists, and that’s why this is a good project.”
We are united with Ali to break through the wall of silence that surrounds the Muslim LGBTQIA community: “I would continue to speak to these communities and provide a positive representation of someone who is progressive. I want to give voice to the LGBT community in Pakistan and give them an opportunity to share their stories and voice their opinions.”
We also stand for a wider fight, the one in favor of the existence and celebration of human being’s amazing variety, with its florid rainbow of beliefs, love and likes: “Being into leather and being Muslim has always taught me acceptance of people that are marginalized. Thus, we need to work to challenge anti-immigrant and racist beliefs everywhere we go. We have to step in and let people of color into our bars and accept them, not throw them out. We have to recognize that they are our brothers. We also need to speak up if we see or hear hate speech and stand up to racism.”
Wajahat Abbas Kazmi
with Barbara Burgio and Pier
©2017 Il Grande Colibrì