I met Mario through Most Wanted Fine Art where we are both Artists in Residence this year. They are planning to participate in the AMPLIFY project when we move into our videography phase in 2016, but I was very pleased that they agreed to submit a Q&A response as well. I hope you’ll find it as thought-provoking as me.
Mario’s Q&A is the 48th published response. Stay tuned this week as we celebrate 50 Q&A’s on Friday!
Name: Mario Ashkar
County of Residence: Allegheny
Preferred Pronouns: Mario/Ashkar, su/sus, They/Them/Their, She/Her
How do you describe your identity? I identify as a queer Rustbelt genderfluid artist of Mediterranean descent, and I acknowledge that I benefit from white male privilege and systemic racism and injustice in the US.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I acknowledged my own queerness by telling my classmates at my private Catholic school that I wanted to be a girl in 2nd grade. I was 7 and it was 1995. I would write in my notebooks that I wanted to have long pig tails and I would imagine coming to school for Mardi Gras’ dress up days dressed as a saloon girl and trick the boys in my class into kissing me. In 5th grade, I used the word bisexual to describe myself with my classmates and in 8th grade I came out as gay on a field trip to Six Flags amusement park. That summer my mother and father approached me and asked me if I thought I was gay, and I told them that yes I was. They both refused to accept that it was anything more than a phase and I never brought it up with them again. Ironically that same year and the year before my mother helped me with my Frank N. Furter and Cher costumes for Halloween. They always allowed me to be gender variant in my self-expression, toys, and clothing but were mortified by the idea of homosexuality. Entering high school I lost most of my friends and was very isolated, but still very vocal in school. Being the only openly gay person in a school of over 2,000 kids, I learned to survive by being quicker and louder than any possible bully. By putting myself into the spotlight I was able to make the joke before anyone else could. I dated boys and girls in high school but when my father caught me with my boyfriend my senior year of high school at the time he told me I could either date men or have a father and a home. I told him that I didn’t need him or the family and within a week he changed his tune and has been loving and supportive ever since. I think it was originally guilt to his family, he would be embarrassed if they found out that he wasn’t supporting me financially through college, and that guilt turned into actual love, I feel. My freshman year of college my mother sent me an email asking me if I was dating men in college. I told her that we had already had this talk 4 years ago but she denied that it ever happened and I had to come out to her again through email. She was incredibly verbally abusive and threatened to pull my financial aid. I told her I didn’t need her and over the next 6 months she also came around and now won’t admit that she ever wasn’t supportive. My experience was painful but it made me a strong independent person who does not shy away from, but actually thrives in, uncomfortable situations where I am forced to walk proudly and speak on behalf of myself. I do not know where the confidence came from originally, but without it I would’ve been smothered and beat down in that small town.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I am always coming out. I have been a shade of bisexual, trans, queer, gay, str8, homoflexible, my whole life and I am the type of person who is always trying to define and understand myself. So, if you’ve known me for 10 years, like some of my oldest friends have, you’ve seen me identify many different ways. I am some kind of queer and I love that. I often identify most though, as a consumer. I feel that many of my lifestyle choices that people feel are connected to my gender or sexuality are in actuality more reflections of my consumer self, especially in regards to clothing.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? The first LGBTQ person I met was my mother’s best friend’s husband. I thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, he was tall and athletic and we would go to Cleveland Indians games together. When I heard that he left Tammie for a man, something ignited inside of me. This was around 1996 and I would have been 8 years old at the time.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Howard Ashman, composer. Wrote the lyrics for Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, and many songs in Aladdin. Died of AIDS related complications in 1991.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I get most of my news through following twitter accounts and I get a lot from my activist friends who post to their facebook pages.
Describe your geographical community. I live in East Liberty which is urban. I have access to grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and public resources.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. The LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh is diverse, accepting, active and aware. Its weaknesses, like many LGBTQ communities, include misogyny, racism, and classism but this type of behavior is not encouraged and I have seen a lot of backlash when it is exhibited. The Pittsburgh LGBTQ community is incredibly talented and driven and create prolific amounts of music and art. I have seen the Pittsburgh LGBTQ community be generous, charitable and welcoming and they plan great events that create conversations and encourage community bonding.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. I have not experienced discrimination at a job because I am privileged in the way that I can pass as a straight white male if I wear the correct clothing and control my voice and mannerisms. This has allowed me to appear a certain way in job interviews and when applying for a home. I understand that many people do not have this luxury and am always open to talk about my privilege and how I address it in my own life with anyone that is interested. I have experienced discrimination however when I am dressed comfortably and confidently, meaning when I wear any clothing that I see fit for my body, meaning men’s or women’s clothing.
Describe your community in terms of being LGBTQ friendly (or not) My community that I see every day is incredibly LGBTQ friendly. My co-collaborators, friends, coworkers are very open. Pittsburgh itself, seems to be a generally safe city even for alternative gender expression. It’s never completely safe, of course, but for the most part you can get from your car to the bar in a dress and get home safe.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? Yes, many of my LGBTQ neighbors are uninformed of their Health rights. Many of my LGBTQ neighbors live in fear of being fired or losing their jobs. This puts their employers in a position of power and allows for manipulation and exploitation. There is also, still much division in the LGBTQ communities in Pittsburgh. There seems to be very clear gender lines, even though many of the communities are trying to blur them, they are still very apparent. Also, ableism, classism, racism, sexism and transphobia.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? I would like to see elected officials guaranteeing work rights to Trans people and I want to see justice for deaths in the Trans communities, especially Trans communities of color.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as a LGBTQ person in your community. No response.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Access to mental health care is very important.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? UPto, is a popup design firm that helps lower-income businesses by offering professional help with graphic design, website and marketing and provides other social media assistance for very low rates. http://whatareyouupto.org/
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? No response.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? No response.
What motivated you to take part in this project? No response.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. How are you addressing your privilege in the LGBTQ community?
I am addressing my white male privilege by sharing my platform, and resources with members of communities who have been silenced by the media.
Thank you, Mario.
Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.
AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a new occasional series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. We are using a Q&A format and will minimize editing their responses. The questions, however, may change as we ask each participant to tell us what we’ve missed asking. It is one of the vibrant elements of a blog format – evolution & growth.
Our intent is to highlight the voices of marginalized members of our community who are not always invited to the table or whose voices are not heard (because “we” are not listening?) Obviously, my choice of questions does shape the conversation, but beyond that – these are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices. If you would like to participate, please email me pghlesbian at gmail or visit the online Q&A.