Tan France: I still receive homophobic and racist abuse when I walk down the street

·9-min read
Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy
Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy

Even on a post-workout Zoom call, Tan France, Queer Eye’s style expert, looks immaculate. He says he doesn’t, but his tank top is perfectly cut, his signature silver quiff neatly hidden under a baseball cap and his skin is glowing. It is yet another example of why he was so perfectly cast as the Netflix series’ style guru back in 2018, part of a show that has since become a pop culture phenomenon.

Most of us know France in this role – a member of the Fab Five who travels around various countries (so far the US and Japan) to find ‘heroes’ whose lives they help improve through their combined expertise, spanning grooming, fashion, interiors, food and light therapy. Choosing your favourite member of Queer Eye is like choosing your favourite Spice Girl, an issue that causes heated dinner table debate, but everyone agrees that France is unarguably likeable. His warmth is what helps him to convince middle-aged American men to finally get rid of cargo shorts, or to help a working mother to find a way of dressing that truly empowers her.

France has maximised his career success. In the three years since Queer Eye arrived, he has written a memoir (Naturally Tan), collaborated with Alexa Chung on a Netflix fashion competition (Next In Fashion) and now, launched a podcast, Queer Icons. Each of the eight episodes celebrates a LGBTQ+ hero from around the world, many of which are yet to receive the recognition they deserve. It's an informative, yet entertaining series with a light, playful touch.

“I am asked at least once a month to do a podcast and I tell my team every time, ‘no, I don’t have the time,’” says France. “I’m so busy with other work and I wouldn’t do it unless it felt impactful or the right fit for me. When they told me what they wanted to do, it felt like a story I wanted to be a part of and share because there was a lot I didn’t know, honestly.”

The story of Dr Evelyn Hooker – a 1950s psychologist whose research proved that being gay wasn’t a mental illness – struck a chord with him. Hooker wasn’t gay, but simply wanted to help the community. “Even if you did that now, there would be opposition,” he says. “There are still some people who see queerness as a something to be fixed, that it’s a psychological issue. We still have conversion therapy over here in the US. There are still people trying to convince us that this is a problem to be solved and we need treatment to help us with it. The fact that she was working in the '50s doing this work, long before we had the right to protest and be subversive, blows my mind.”

The next frontier to overcome in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is creating a safer space for the trans community, he says. Two in five trans people (41 per cent) and three in ten non-binary people (31 per cent) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months, while more than one in four (27 per cent) trans young people have attempted to commit suicide and nine in ten (89 per cent) have thought about it. according to research from Stonewall. Worryingly, the trans community has recently been attacked by some radical feminists who don’t believe trans women can or should be classified as women, nor should they be allowed in women-only spaces such as public bathrooms. “I know trans people and I know their attention is never to co-opt a whole gender, it’s just about wanting to be seen as the person they truly are,” says France. “They’re not out to take the rights of women, they’re not out to take rights from men. They just want to be treated as humans with respect and to have the option of a life free of attack. Creating a safer space for the trans community should be the focus for all of us when we’re talking about LBGTQ+ rights.”

Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin
Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

He pauses before adding: “I’m not saying it’s easy to be gay, queer or bi – it isn’t. I still would expect to be called a poof or fag if I was walking down the street in the UK or America, from people who don’t know me as Tan France from Queer Eye and was dressed the way I dress. In fact, I’d be shocked if I didn’t. I’m not saying it’s much better for us, but I’m just saying that our plight isn’t as great as that of the trans community.”

I stop him, asking whether he's regularly subjected to homophobic abuse. “I will say that, for many of us, it’s just standard,” he says. “I’ve never known a life where someone hasn’t heckled me – it’s either Paki or poof. If I’m walking down the street, it’s one or the other without fail.”

He experiences more abuse in the UK than in the US, and particularly outside of London where he is forced to adapt his appearance to prevent racial or homophobic slurs. “I tone down what I’m wearing for my own safety,” he says. “I usually choose less flamboyant clothes and dress more casually to ensure that I’m protecting myself. I pray that we one day live in a world where that’s not a reality. I thought being in Queer Eye, being on TV and quite frankly famous, would remove the pressure of having to be someone I’m not but it doesn’t. There’s no such thing as a free pass.”

France is one of very few openly queer Muslim men on mainstream television, particularly in the US. He was warned early on by both friends and Netflix that his road to fame wouldn’t be easy, that a heavy burden comes from being the first to represent so many marginalised communities. He accepted the challenge, but the reality is difficult, and proves why there is such a great need for wider representation. He is trolled to such an extent on social media that he no longer checks his direct messages because they became so abusive. He is also targeted on the street to a point where he fears his personal safety. It’s part of the reason he decided to live in Utah with his husband, rather than more celebrity-filled places like LA or New York – to ensure that he could live more anonymously.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

“It has taken such a toll on me, and has affected my life in ways that I will never be able to recover from for as long as I live,” he says sombrely. “Every day I’m inundated with opinions about how I live my life because there aren’t others. It can be from people who aren’t from my community who don’t want to see someone like me on TV, or it can be people from within the community, whether the queers, the south Asians or Muslims, who think I’m representing them in a way that they don’t like. If there were others, they could see different versions and understand that we’re all just regular people. Regular people get to be different things. No one’s attacking Antoni Porowski or Bobbi Berk for who they are because there are loads of white people on TV.”

He is worried he looks ungrateful for talking about these issues. "I am so appreciative of what I have," he says. "I was warned about this. I knew that would be the case and I accepted it."

Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy
Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy

France was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, to Pakistani parents who raised him as a Muslim. From an early age, he learnt to adapt his behaviour to reflect that of a cis man. When he was a child, he was told by his cousin not to cross his legs because “that’s what little girls did”. “I had to desperately try not to do that even though my legs begged to be crossed,” he laughs. “Shit like that sticks with you as a kid and you try hard to fit in. I lived a lie until I was 17; I dressed like a straight man, I styled my hair like a straight man just in case someone caused me problems. I just got used to it. When people ask me if I can act, I say ‘I acted for 17 years, I’m very good at it.’”

He spent the first part of his career working in retail for shops including Zara, Selfridges and Bershska, and then, aged 26, launched a line of modest clothing aimed at Mormon women. The business took off quickly in Utah, thanks to the strong Mormon community there. He began working with influencer family the Skalla sisters, who were in talks to launch their own reality show. The project never took off, but France’s name was forwarded onto Netflix who were auditioning for the new Queer Eye. “Every season I feel more and more that I can be whoever the fuck I am, whether people like it or not,” he says. “Even with all the abuse, I feel so powerful at this point. I’m surrounded by four people who galvanise each other and build each other up. We’ve become this powerful team and I think we’d all say the same thing.”

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France is about to embark on his most exciting life chapter yet, fatherhood. He and husband Rob France announced in April that they were expecting a child with the help of a surrogate. Their baby boy is due later this summer. “It’s been my dream since I was in my late teens to be a parent – I’ve always known I wanted to be a father,” he says beaming. “We couldn’t be more excited. Our surrogate is giving us the greatest gift in the world. All that I have from Queer Eye, everything I have from this public life, none of it compares to how grateful we are for this in particular. I have so much love to give this child, I love him so much already.”

If he could wish one thing for his son, what would it be? “I hope that he is able to navigate his life without feeling restrained by being a person of colour or however he identifies,” he says. “I want him to live his life happily and proudly. All that I’m doing in my career is to normalise my people as much as possible so that by the time my kids are of age, they’re seen as equal.”

Tan France’s Queer Icons, an original podcast is available to download from 10 June (free for Audible members, free with Audible’s 30-day trial) exclusively audible.uk/queericons.

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