June 26, 2017, was a grim day for religious tolerance in America. On that date, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold parts of the Trump administration's travel ban, which restricts people from six predominantly Islamic countries from entering the United States, lending credibility to the irrational wave of xenophobia that swept a foul-mouthed reality TV star into the Oval Office. But, when it comes to inclusivity, while SCOTUS backslides, Ali Mushtaq is stepping up.
"I’m in a competition where most people don’t look like me," said Mushtaq, an openly gay Muslim and the first Pakistani-American to participate in the International Mr. Leather competition. "I have a small build, I’m 5 foot 7. I don’t look like your typical Tom of Finland model. I set out to pave the way for those who don’t look like that, whether they are Pakistani, black, overweight. I wanted to show that if I’m there, it's possible with anybody."
For readers uninitiated into the realm of kink, IML is an annual, pageant-style competition for leather enthusiasts and members of the BDSM community. Think Miss America, but with more public spankings. Contestants traditionally fit the beefcake archetype popularized by the erotic art of Tom of Finland: hyper-masculine, hairy-chested, statuesque. They tend to look more like a Brawny Paper Towels mascot than the compact, dark-skinned Mushtaq. But to Mushtaq, diversity is a core element of the leather community.
"We’re on the forefront of being progressive and inclusive," the 27-year-old Mushtaq says in a phone interview. "All of us are perverted and weird to a certain degree. But we accept each other regardless. That’s what I loved about it. We are on the fringes of society. We are the deviants and misfits, even though we're all basically really normal."
An Orange County native, Mushtaq was introduced to the leather scene while earning his Ph.D. in sociology in San Francisco. Last September, he was crowned Mr. Long Beach Leather, which served as a warmup to IML in Chicago in May. A multiday affair, IML begins with a preliminary meet-and-greet.
"The judges basically figure out if you are crazy or not," Mushtaq jokes.
The next day involves a more formal interview process, where judges will ask a series of questions, ranging from personal experience in the leather community to leather history and current issues. Contestants are judged on stage presence during an event dubbed "Pecs and Personality." On Sunday, finalists are evaluated based on appearance and presentation skills.
"You are put onstage, sometimes in your jockstrap, and you are answering a funny question on the fly," Mushtaq explains. "Then [you] give a speech. There are some leather contests where they make you play onstage: BDSM, whipping, tying people up, those kind of things. You would do what’s called a fantasy scene. It's like a theatrical ‘What would you do sexually to somebody if you could.’
"I had to judge a fantasy once at San Diego Leather," Mushtaq continues, "and somebody did something on Build-a-Bear. So, she sexualized the idea of building a gay bear and doing stuff to him. It was an interesting combination of 'What would you do sexually' and performance."
While the competitive leather circuit has exposed Mushtaq to diverse examples of sexual expression, it has also, at times, highlighted social inequity.
"This year has been an eye-opening experience," Mushtaq says. "I’m so used to Southern California, and the SoCal leather scene. There are Latinos and black people and Asians everywhere. We’re diverse. I went to Mid-Atlantic Leather [in Washington, D.C.] for the first time. I noticed, if I introduced some of the black people to the white people, the white people would just talk over them or ignore them. I’m like, that’s weird."
Admittedly, prejudice is nothing new to the Muslim Californian.
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"I grew up during the 9/11 era. I started junior high in 2001. I went to private school, so I was pretty much shielded from discrimination, but that's not to say that wasn't on our minds all the time. For example, If I was going to the airport, I would have to be clean-shaven. There was an undercurrent of fear. As for the LGBT community, someone called me a terrorist on Grindr. I get text messages from random people saying, 'Go home you fucking terrorist.'"
But, to Mushtaq, Muslim and queer culture share more than just being mutual targets for bigotry.
"I think at its core, Islam is a religion about peace and acceptance. You look at the Quran, it talks about Mohammad going to places like Medina and uniting the Christians and the Jews. In leather, we tend to be the umbrella, the catch-all, for all these minority groups, may they be trans people, may they be furries, bears, pups, whatever. At its core, it's supposed to be an all-accepting subculture, just like Islam is."
Mushtaq ponders for a moment, before adding, "At least at its core."