By ERIK PIEPENBURG
May 31, 2017
CHICAGO — It was the Friday before Memorial Day and Ali Mushtaq was in his room at the Congress Plaza Hotel, dressed like a votary in the church of Tom of Finland: skin-seizing bluejeans, lace-up cuffs called gauntlets, disciplinarian jackboots and a belted leather strap that crisscrossed the defined chest of his 5-foot-6-inch frame.
As he looked in the mirror, Mr. Mushtaq, 27, who calls himself “very, very gay,” held a necklace against his dark and hairy chest. It was given to him by his mother when he was a teenager, and on it hung a tiny pendant with a word, rendered in stylized Arabic script, that Mr. Mushtaq knew would enchant some men and utterly enrage others.
The word: “Allah.”
“My presence here is an anomaly,” Mr. Mushtaq said. “My presence shows that people that look like me, that are Pakistani, that are Muslim, are here for peace. We are the sex symbol. We are the people that everybody wants to hit on.”
By “here,” Mr. Mushtaq meant at International Mr. Leather, an annual gathering of men (and a few women) in Chicago who are into kink and leather, and culminates with the pageant-style crowning of the year’s winner.
Mr. Mushtaq, who competed as Mr. Long Beach Leather, was not the first Muslim contestant to compete at I.M.L., as the event is commonly known. But he was the first Pakistani-American contestant, and in the leather community his presence at I.M.L. was a big leap out of the pitch-black closet for Muslim men who are not only gay, but also into leather fetish.
When asked why he competes, he said, “When you get the Facebook message that says ‘You are living my dream.’”
Since winning his local Mr. Leather title in California last year, Mr. Mushtaq has made small steps into the media spotlight. In March, he was profiled in The Los Angeles Times. Manhattan Digest, an online lifestyle publication, recently named him to their list of 2017’s Bears You Should Know. (Although in gay parlance, Mr. Mushtaq is really more of an otter — a trim, hairy gay man — not a bear, a term for the more husky man.) He says a production company wants to make him the subject of a reality show.
Issa Arden, a member of the social media team for I.M.L., said that having Mr. Mushtaq compete this year could broaden the gay subculture’s appeal to racial, ethnic and religious minorities. “The more fully you see people that are different in various ways, the more you see an embrace of everything that leather can be,” said Ms. Arden, one of a small group of women at I.M.L. “Having someone Muslim or noticeably brown or who is well built but smaller of stature, it’s all of those things.”
But publicity has been a mixed bag. Mr. Mushtaq said that while most of the feedback he received had been positive, he also got text messages calling him “an ugly, dirty Muslim” and a “terrorist.” He has also met fellow leather folk who think “that being Muslim is the antithesis of being progressive,” he said.
Although he calls himself a Muslim (he studied Arabic and the Quran as a child), Mr. Mushtaq says his relationship to Islam today is “an ethnic identity as opposed to a fundamentalist religious identity.” He adheres devoutly to some elements of the faith (he doesn’t eat pork), and more casually to others (“I’m a very light drinker”). His Islam is not “the crazy people with the swords,” as he put it, but professionals “who consider themselves Muslim” and who “might approve of gay marriage.”
Mr. Mushtaq was born in California to Pakistani immigrant parents and came out as gay in high school in conservative Orange County at 15. But it wasn’t until he attended California State University, Fullerton, that he discovered he was “bored being gay.”
“I wanted to be more edgy, the libertine that everyone gossiped about and called a slut,” said Mr. Mushtaq, whose chatty, giggle-prone personality may seem at odds with the stereotype of an order-barking leatherman.
Today, Mr. Mushtaq sexually identifies as an impact-play and bondage switch, meaning he is comfortable assuming the dominant and submissive roles in the infliction of pain. His preferred tools are flogs and a whip he has named Wally. (“It’s the kinkiest thing I could think of.”)
He lives with his maternal grandparents in Anaheim, Calif., and maintains a good relationship with his divorced parents, who he says are supportive of his leather endeavors. In a phone interview, Ruby Atcha, Mr. Mushtaq’s 70-year-old grandmother, said she “didn’t care about Muslims and religion” and was more concerned with her older grandson’s happiness than with his sexuality. She and her husband were proud that Mr. Mushtaq felt he could be open about his choices.
“We’re very happy that at least he’s never lied to us,” she said.
After several days of dress rehearsals, interviews and, of course, parties, Mr. Mushtaq took his place to compete with 62 other men from around the world. As it turns out, Mr. Mushtaq didn’t win or even make the first cut of 20. (The title went to Ralph Bruneau, who competed as Mr. Gay Naturists International Leather.)
But Mr. Mushtaq was far from crushed. After the competition, he went back to his hotel room, had pizza and made plans to return to his job as an adjunct professor of sociology at Long Beach College. He also wants to continue to spread the message that “visibility makes people secure.”
“It’s about reaching out to the people in Islamabad,” he said. “I want to be the role model I didn’t have. You see somebody like that looks like you and you say, maybe I can be a part of this.”