Two hours before Tan France stepped on the Grand Theatre stage at Salt Lake Community College, he found out he was a New York Times’ Best Selling Author. Having flown in from Chicago and heading out to San Francisco immediately after, France — who lives in Utah — celebrated the feat with his sold-out, adoptive-hometown crowd.
During his June 12 visit, sponsored by The King’s English Bookshop, France recounted light-hearted moments in his life — meeting fellow “Queer Eye” cast members — as well as his encounters with homophobia and racism. With his husband moderating the event, France divulged into stories.
When presented with the opportunity to write a book, France was quick to write himself off. He said he had nothing to talk about, but his husband put into perspective what France’s book could mean to people.
“I am one of the very few people who’ve been given the luxury, the privilege of being on a big show. ‘Queer Eye’ is global, and all of us want to make sure we are using out platforms as much as possible to encourage change and positivity,” France said. “Quite frankly, there are not a lot of Pakistani, gay guys who are immigrants who write books.”
France wrote about growing up in South Yorkshire, a metropolitan county in England. Seven out of 400 students in his school were people of color. When his older brother would stay home sick, France would act sick so his parents wouldn’t make him walk to school alone. When certain people saw a brown child unaccompanied, they would beat the child. France, attempting to find safety, would walk closely behind families when tasked with walking alone.
“A lot of you grew up in Utah; you’ve got kids, I’m sure,” France said. “Just try to imagine for a second your 5-year-old going to school and thinking some 20-something is going to beat the sh*t out of him or spit in his face or throw something at him just because of the color of his skin. That truly was our reality.”
France urged the crowd to read the chapter in his book about when he and his brother were attacked and remember it the next time one of their family members makes a comment about someone different from them. France encouraged stopping the family member.
Media outlets like the BBC, Fox News and Refinery29 published articles about France bleaching his skin. While France wrote about stealing bleaching products from his cousin when he was younger, news outlets created headlines that made it seem France has continued bleaching and gave no context of what occurs in brown and black communities that lead some to try bleaching.
“When you are a person of color, you are not only experiencing racism from other people outside of your community, you are experiencing racism from within your own community,” France said. “The desperation to be pale is so strong.”
In France’s experience, light-skinned people of color are told they would find a good bride and get good jobs. Dark-skinned people are told they are not likely to succeed. Growing up with these standards, France said he caved into the pressure.
When France’s book had been finalized and on the verge of printing, he contacted his publisher and said he had one more chapter he had to add. Met with resistance, France said he wouldn’t go through with the book deal if the chapter was not included.
Within a five year span, France was detained 24 times when going through customs. This was his life after September 11, 2001.
While he understands and is sympathetic to the “never forget” mantra surrounding 9/11, France believes it is also a justification for treating Muslims and people of color as a threat. Never forgetting, to France, is the nervous shifts he sees when he boards a plane. When bombings occur, France said he and other Muslims and minorities are just as afraid as other citizens.
“The amount of times somebody said something disgusting to me on the street, I cannot count,” France said. “And it used to be, when I was a kid, just about the color of my skin. But now when they taunt me on the street, it’s ‘f**king terrorist’ or ‘rag head’ or ‘go back to your own country.’”
France is candid about his ups and downs. Initially, he did not want to audition for Netflix’s “Queer Eye” because the pressure would be too much. He understands he represents a plethora of marginalized groups, — he is gay, Pakistani, Muslim and an immigrant — and he is often not allowed to forget it. That’s why he finds it important to use his platform to educate and ignite change.
Jase Van Meeteren credits “Queer Eye” as being one of the things that helped him come out. He looked toward France’s husband’s path of being an openly gay man within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“His husband is LDS and later came out as gay. Their relationship is amazing, and that gives me a lot of hope for my future,” Van Meeteren said.
Evann Howlett, who arrived four hours early to see France, said “Queer Eye” and France have not only created a loving community but also offered insight to people who would otherwise never come into contact with gay men.
“My mom works with people of different sexual identities, and I think just seeing the show and people like Tan definitely makes things more approachable and, I guess, easier to grasp,” Howlett said.
Lauren Laws said France is the host she resonates with the most from “Queer Eye.”
“I think he strikes a good balance talking about hard-hitting issues, but being pretty funny, approachable and kind,” Laws said. “It’s really nice to see more of that representation. I do think he brings (Salt Lake City) a different perspective.”
France talked about the growth he has seen in the LGBTQ community since he moved to Utah nearly a decade ago. He said that while the pride parade was lovely before, it is grander and more inclusive as of late.
He sees the community growing, but believes there is room for improvement. He recalled recently seeing an article about someone being attacked. He cannot comprehend how these events continue to occur.
“We are in f**king Salt Lake City, and we are meant to be better. We better be better. Talk to your family. Talk to your friends,” France said.
As France rushed out of the Grand Theater, his next speaking engagement beginning in less than 24 hours, fans followed him to his SUV. With the car window down, France told the crowd they all looked lovely. He won’t be back for months, he said, but Salt Lake eagerly awaits his return.