Meet Ali Mushtaq… By day he is a dashingly handsome professor who teaches about inequality, health and racism at a liberal arts college in Southern California. However, when he’s not opening students’ minds with his wise words, he can be found whipping off his clothes and enjoying a wild time on the leather scene.
In fact, the furry hunk enjoys the BDSM world so much, he even competed as Mr Long Beach at the International Mr Leather competition in Chicago in 2016.
What makes him even more extraordinary is that Ali is a young Muslim man who is out and proud and embracing his sexuality. And while he was not the first Muslim contestant to compete in that fiercely-fought annual contest, he was the first Pakistani-American contestant to take part, which makes him not only a great role model for gay men in general, but also for men of colour and indeed other Muslim gay men.
With profiles having already appeared in well-respected titles such as the The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, Ali has been pleased to see his media profile rise and says he is keen to use his platform to combat social inequality and admits that his main goal is to “help people empower themselves, find their voice, and create a better tomorrow”.
What a guy, eh?
Keen to know more about what makes this big-hearted fella tick, we caught up with the captivating Ali, 30, to chat about what it was like for him grow up Muslim and gay, how he feels about the continuing racism within the LGBT community and the leather world and explains why monogamy is just not for him.
So Ali, tell us about the kind of family life you grew up in?
I grew up in Orange County, a conservative part of California. It was a relatively suburban area, and it didn’t really expose me to different kinds of people. I grew up Muslim so I took Quran and Arabic lessons from my grandfather’s sister, went to a mosque, but our family wasn’t very religious, so it wasn’t a very strict environment.
When did you start to realise you were gay?
I think at about age 12 or 13 I started to slowly realise I was attracted to other men. At the first it was somewhat difficult to accept being gay, but it was something that I ended up accepting early on because I didn’t want to live a life where I was dealing with anxiety for who I am even if it meant being ostracized (which indeed for a bit as soon as I came out).
Who was the person you were most worried to open up to?
It was really strange because my grandfather had clients who were gay, but I felt like he was very judgmental of gay marriage at the time. Then over time, he grew to deal with the idea that I was gay and evolved from that.
Who was the first person you told?
I think I told my grandmother. At first she wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I was gay, but then after a month, she and other family members came around. They never told me to hide my sexual orientation or to be ashamed, and very much supported me as I built a platform to address being gay, Muslim, and into BDSM.
What was life at school like – did your sexuality become the bane of your life?
I think in general I always existed on the fringes of whatever community I happened to land in. So apart from being the ‘weird kid who liked Anime’, coming out during my junior year in high school was difficult. Yes I was teased because of my sexual orientation, but I think it made me want to challenge power and authority even more.
Bravo sir! Was the gay scene as you expected it to be?
I didn’t get a chance to meet other queer people until I started my undergrad years. It was interesting because I got exposed to queer women and trans communities in our student organisation. So here, I made friends that would be life-long friend. But then I started to feel out of place because I wanted a community that was more sexual and to help me be more empowered with my sexuality. That would come later when I went to San Francisco for grad school.
Ah! And when you got there was it just sex you were looking for?
I think for a while I wanted to find a boyfriend, but I started to shift that focus when I started placing a premium on developing my sexuality.
Were you always aware of practising safe sex?
When safe sex meant using condoms, yes. But given that our definition has shifted to being on PrEP to prevent HIV, knowing that HIV undetectable means untransmittable, and that I go in for quarterly STI check-ups for any bacterial STI, then yes, I still continue to practice safe-sex.
Monogamy is something that is debated about so much among gay men. Are you a one-on-one kind of guy?
I unequivocally do not believe in monogamy. I think for me, I’m at a point where I can differentiate love and sex, where I can have a partner, have multiple sex partners, as well as having men with whom I’m intimately close with, but not necessarily have them as partners. So I’m very sexually open and I expect a potential partner to be the same. I think I’m also, to some extent, polyamorous.
So looking for love is definitely not a priority?
Being in the leather world has taught me there are multiple kinds of love, and that you don’t necessarily to have be in a committed relationship with one person in order to be happy. I learned how to create close relationships with other men, with at times, a sexual component. I’m really also not a fan of serial monogamy (one guy to the next) because I think all of relationships with men are valuable and can have some kind of intimacy.
What kind of boyfriend are you?
I’d like to think I’m not the kind of boyfriend you would find in a Taylor Swift song.
And what do you look for in a guy – is it all about aesthetics or do you look past that and dig deeper?
I think if I were to settle down with someone, he’d have to be mentally and emotionally evolved, intelligent, and he’d also accept how I view sexuality. I think also he’d also have to empathy for people who are marginalized. Those qualities are very important to me.
Is being with someone just about sex, or is about commitment and companionship?
I think different people have different things to offer may it be sex, commitment, intimacy, and companionship. So I don’t feel like I should have find all of that in one person.
Have you had many meaningful relationships?
I think all of my relationships have been meaningful because they taught me something about myself in the process even if it meant that I had to leave them.
What about destructive relationships?
I think if any relationship that was disruptive in any way, it would be the one that I had with the leather/BDSM world as opposed to with particular people. There were individual people that were amazing in the community, but I think at times, I’ve had a very co-dependent relationship with the community because the community embraces people that generally do not make waves, challenge authority, and overall, conform to a very narrow ideal of what it means to be a leather person. I think the fact that I tried to volunteer as much as I did and sought approval from people that would never give it me was indeed destructive.
Oh really. Do you think we can fully embrace relationships if we haven’t then time to embrace ourselves?
Yes, on that note, I think many marginalized people go to various communities seeking approval and people that we think will make us better. I think we do that because we’ve been turned away from our families, communities, and we get ourselves in toxic relationships because we desperately want to fit in and find homes. But until we recognise our inherent value, embrace who we are, and make choices that are self-validating, we will continue to find ourselves in situations that are abusive and destructive.
A lot of guys try to find their ‘tribe’ – have you ever felt the pressure to fit into one?
It’s interesting that you ask this because there’s an emphasis in the leather world about finding one’s tribe, and that while I have felt pressure to conform to these ideals, I never truly have been able to conform completely. And it’s interesting, because I don’t think I ever found the tribe where I could call home. Instead, I’ve managed to exist in multiple communities. So in a sense I feel like everywhere and nowhere is my tribe, and that I’m a constant nomad spreading my message in hopes others might find it helpful.
Interesting. You’re a handsome guy, but have you ever felt like you have been treated like soem kind of a sex object and not seen for the man you are?
I appreciate that. I think as a man of colour, I feel like I’m judged in the leather world more on what I look like versus what I say or what I can contribute. I think that’s true to some degree for a lot of us in the gay community. But I also know racial discrimination exists in the bear world too, so either way, it’s hard to exist in the community regardless of my body type because of my skin colour.
View this post on Instagram
I’m teaching LGBTQ studies this semester. As someone that’s made LGBT History of my own and having reached a global platform, it’s strange teaching history that didn’t always include people like me. It’s time to tell a new story to a new generation. #woof #drali #mentorship #newgeneration #selfie #saturday
You’ve written about racism on the leather scene… explain what you’ve experienced.
There were various micro-aggressions, namely being confused with another South Asian person (who looks nothing like me), being held to higher standards than my white counterparts (in terms of what I had to do to gain access and have a voice in the community), having my suggestions downplayed because of what was seen as being very “political,” even though they were valid concerns around race and representation in the community (especially within title holder circles), and many other examples. In the leather world, the idea of “race play” is hotly contested, where some eroticise the notion of treating black sexual partners as slaves (as per slavery) in an erotic context, and indeed, that been an example of how racism works. As a South Asian who has played with white, British men, the dynamic has had certain colonialist baggage that I personally had to navigate.
Wow. Not a lot of people would know that goes on. Do you find there is a lot of racism in the LGBT community as a whole?
Yes I do. I think in the beginning when I was first going to gay bars, it was hard to see non-white people (let alone other South Asians) on stage as performers, especially as gogo dancers, at non-ethnic nights. So that, coupled with knowing how people explicitly discriminated against other people on Grindr, especially before their campaign, “Kindr,” it was difficult. And now, my current work, as someone that’s represented the community focuses both on bringing these issues to light, as well as providing remedies for these problems.
Have you always been happy about the way you look?
I’m content about what I look like, but I think the pressure was more about how I saw my relationships with other people in the leather world where there was definitely a pressure to conform. Like I could physically embody what it meant to be a leather person but I could never really embody its values in terms of reinforcing hierarchies, being complicit in marginalizing others, and conforming to people’s attitude’s in the community. I think it was more of an existential pressure to fit in rather than a pressure to physically fit in.
Do you think gay men are too obsessed with the body beautiful?
I think these conversations are really nuanced. I do understand some gay men are very sizist , engage in fat shaming, but some also value heavier men (especially within bear communities). So I think these conversations need to go beyond simply talking about what gay men are obsessed about, as opposed to being honest about underlying reasons why we have self-esteem problems, why we react negatively toward people, especially people that have marginalized because of their size, and how can we work toward being more inclusive in our bars, events, etc.
View this post on Instagram
TBT to being a titleholder. Learned a lot and now they are simply #memories #representation #scruff #beardedhomo #fur #chest #fun #smile #woof #scruf #scruff #beardedhomo #leather #chest #furrychest #woof #fur #gayboy #lumbersexual #gay #beast #bear #leather #hair #hairy #wuforever #gayboy #Gay #GayBoyFamous #hairychest #hair
A lot of gay men use instagram as a means to boost their self esteem – do you have a healthy relationship with social media?
That’s very good question. I do know people that develop body dysmorphia issues and turn to steroids because it increases their “likes,” but for me, social media, and instagram is a place I go to stay connected with friends, and to reach people that I might have never talked to. There are times where I have gone on breaks (because of heavy workloads or because I wanted to observe a period of respectful silence for a marginalized group.
What do you like most about your body?
I think my body hair. There have been people have rejected me in past when I was younger because of my body hair and I was told that I would look better if I had shaved it all off. After growing up, I found that it was something I could be comfortable with because becoming comfortable with “me.” I have my insecurities like anyone else, like for example, I never liked my nose. I think it’s one of those features when some say it makes me unique, but I never got comfortable with it.
View this post on Instagram
Cause I think everyone should be #equal #blacklivesmatter #equality #noundies #diversity #scruff #gaypride #loveislove #science #women #gym #exercise #preworkout #instagay #scruff #chest #socal #hairy #fun #smile #woof #scruf #scruff #beardedhomo #furrychest #gayboy #beast #bear #hairy #gayboy #Gay #GayBoyFamous #pitsofinstagram #model
You enjoy the leather world – what attracted to you to that and when?
Well, as a Mr. Long Beach 2016, it would be hard to say “no” [I joke]. I think I already was going down a path of wanting to be edgier with my sexuality, so when I moved to San Francisco in 2012, it was an opportunity to fall into the leather community. So I took some time to explore my fetishes and the rest is history.
Did it take some getting used to – was it an easy community to become part of?
The actual practices of leather and BDSM was not so much an issue, but getting onto PrEP and having sex did indeed took some getting used to. I never had problems or reservations to try new sexual things, but having to undo years of internalized homophobia.
View this post on Instagram
This weekend was #folsom weekend. Though I didn’t go, it caused me to reflect on the years I’ve been in the world and the kinds of conversations that are beginning to be had. While the world has a long way to go, I look back on the @laweekly and this article of me to reflect on my personal growth and my readiness to take on new challenges. ##scruff #growth #jockstrap #folsom2019 #lamagazine #woof #diversity #gaybearsandcubs🐻
How have you coped during this strange Covid-19 time?
It’s difficult. I didn’t realize how much of my life and well being depended on interacting with other people. So to cope, I’m playing games, like Animal Crossing for Switch, so that I can interact with people. I’ve been writing more, and thinking more about what I want out of life as well as how to help others.
How has this affected work for you?
I primarily teach so the shift to teaching online was quite difficult. I don’t think online education is hard to pull off, but what was difficult is that the students I have dealt with anxiety on top of their classes and indeed, I saw students that had anxiety problems and had problems adjusting to the new the new format. However, now, I get to focus more on research and develop workshops that can help people with trauma, anxiety, marginalisation, as well as empower others to represent diversity and to solve social problems.
What could this mean to your business?
I think now, given that society is coming to the realisation that we have to have to rethinking a lot about we do things, especially as an American and in regards to our race relations, our healthcare system, and capitalism, I think that I am able to now develop workshops and other sorts of materials (books, newsletters, etc.) that meets the needs of the moment. For example, given the Black Lives Matter Movement, many journalists, YouTube entrepreneurs, podcasters, marketing professionals, and others would find my workshops particularly instructive as the first workshop I’m producing will help them interview people to get diversity and to represent that as part of their work. I also am in the process of creating workshops to help people in dominant social groups to unlearn any racism or inequalities they might still harbor, as well as help marginalized people in order to cope with trauma and anxiety. You can stay updated with my latest work here by staying connected at www.gettingwolfie.com
Are you worried about the future?
I’m optimistic. I think now many people are realizing to value our connections with others and hopefully, if we are able to get through the pandemic together, we can hopefully continue to build a better world.
Are you thinking of ways of adapt to the situation?
Indeed I am. The workshops I will offer are not only digital, but I also can do them privately for companies or for other communities over Zoom. I also will begin to offer personalised coaching to help others not only capture diversity in their work, but also to help them be more inclusive on an interpersonal level.
Tell me more about these workshops and where can we hear more about them…
So with the interest in promoting diversity and hearing voices that are normally not heard, I am able to draw on my professional expertise as a sociologist, researcher, and can develop a personalized curriculum to help our friends in the media and marketing to better represent marginalised voices. In the future, I will create workshops that address basic interviewing skills and developing keys to self-empowerment. You can sign up for newsletter here at www.gettingwolfie.com.
Finally, would you say to your 12 year old self about the future?
Whenever I answer this type of question, I tear up a little bit because I didn’t think at 12, I ever thought I would be able to shift how people thought or that I could make a difference. I never thought I could develop a platform to reach people around the world and help make things easier for the people that came after me. So I was tell myself “You’ll keep playing video games, but you’ll also be helping to make the world a better place.”