‘Queer Eye’ star Tan France on exposing his own ignorance of the transgender community
The second season of Netflix’s Queer Eye features a first for the reboot: a contestant who’s a transgender man. This man, Skyler, opens his world up to enlist the Fab Five for a short time in hopes they’ll help him settle more squarely into his identity following his recent surgery to remove his breasts.
For the show’s fashion expert, Tan France, Skyler also presented an opportunity to educate himself — and by extension, Queer Eye’s audience — on Sky’s experience of what it means to be trans. In the middle of the episode, the two have a sit-down in which Tan admits his own ignorance of the trans community.
“I feel fucking stupid, quite honestly,” Tan says in his conversation with Sky. “I’ve always looked at trans people and I’ve thought, ‘[Surgery] costs so much and it can be really painful. Why are you putting yourself through that?’”
In a phone interview Friday, Tan discussed why this scene was so important for him to include, how he’s grown as an active member of the gay community with the help of his fellow Fab Five brethren and what he’s still working to understand better. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Mic: Hi Tan, it’s great to talk to you again. What are you up to today, besides all of these interviews with reporters?
Tan France: Eating all the baked goods I can possibly fit in my gullet. Do you know what Breads Bakery is, Tim? Let me tell you. If you want heaven on a plate, or in a box, just go to Breads and get the babka — anyway, sorry, I should probably answer your questions. But believe me, if you had this, it would be all you could talk about, too.
Believe me, I’m starving so I’m happy to talk about this.
TF: OK, great, then after this, go get some babka. (Editor’s note: Tan insists he’s not being paid to talk about Breads Bakery.)
Will do. OK, so, to me, the most important moment I thought you had this season was when you were talking with Skyler about your own —
Yeah. Talking about your own lack of knowledge of trans people.
TF: Yeah, it was something I desperately wanted to talk about on the show. Let me explain a bit of the backstory of how our show works. A couple of weeks before we film an episode, we find out about the person we’re helping and then we decide what we want to do for our scenes. We have an amazing team of producers but we are really heavily involved with what we want our — we call them “field trips” — to be.
With this one, I told them I wanted to put Skyler in a suit. I’d seen a documentary called Suited, and I knew how important it was for a trans man to have a suit that fits, because a lot of trans men see a suit as the ultimate man’s outfit to have in their arsenal. However, I asked for something that we don’t usually allow on the show, which was a double field trip. I said, “I want to show that not all of us understand the plights of everyone else in our community.” Just because I’m gay and I’m part of the LGBTQIA community doesn’t mean I know every facet of it.
So, I pushed and pushed against some people’s will to make sure I got a chance to sit down and ask questions that I’ve always wanted to ask and felt like it wasn’t appropriate to or was probably offensive, but I also wanted to ask questions from other people’s perspectives. So, I asked friends and family from all over the world, “If you wanted to ask a trans person one thing, or if you haven’t met a trans person before and you have any preconceived ideas, what are they?” I did a lot of research that week and I spoke to as many friends and family as I could, gathered questions and that’s how I planned out that scene.
That’s why I think that scene is powerful. It’s the first time that it’s done, in my opinion, well — that’s not a compliment to myself, it’s to the editors — where they allowed me space to ask questions to hopefully educate the rest of the world. This isn’t just an American show, it’s a global show and I wanted to be able to give Skyler a platform and a forum to let the world know what they go through, what trans people go through and how we might be able to better serve them.
You mention on the show that you felt like you hadn’t been as active in the gay community and hadn’t met many trans people. Can you explain that a bit more?
TF: Before I moved to America, I didn’t have many gay friends. I had a couple of gay friends, but because I don’t drink and most people are drinkers — after work, you go to a bar or a club — and that’s what our social life is all about back home, work and the pub, that wasn’t the life for me. So, I struggled making gay friends because I didn’t meet anybody who didn’t drink or go to clubs — I get very nervous in clubs and don’t like to dance, I get embarrassed. So, yeah, that was really hard for me.
And then, when I moved to Utah, we’ve got a decent amount of gay men in Utah, but I was new. The only people I knew were my husband and his friends, and they were mostly female, so I got stuck in a friend group that worked well for me. None of them drank alcohol, so it was easier for me to just stay in that bubble.
So, before the show, I really didn’t have a lot of exposure, and I’ve been really open about the fact that when I decided to audition for the show, the main reason was to make gay friends. It wasn’t actually to be on the show, because I thought that was never a possibility. I’d never auditioned for a show before, so I didn’t think I’d ever get the job.
Who within the Fab Five, in terms of your own education — for lack of a better word — of the gay community, has been your biggest ambassador?
Karamo and Jonathan, because they’re very active within the gay community. They have a lot of gay friends, they go to a lot of LGBTQIA events, they are immersed in the community in L.A. — so, they’ve been the ones who have really opened my eyes and been able to educate me on certain things, and even some American gay terminology. A lot of those terms, I had never heard before. And there’s so much that I say now that I never said before or even heard before. Those guys really schooled me on how to be a cool gay guy. [Laughs.]
You’re gonna have to tell me some words they taught you and you’ve incorporated into your lexicon.
OK, so I haven’t incorporated this one into my day-to-day lexicon, but every now and then I’ll throw it out: It’s the “kiki.” I had no idea what they were saying. I never, ever said, “Yaaass queen” before I got with these boys. Oh gosh, what was the one, “Sashay, you stay?”
Oh, yeah, I’d never heard that before, but OK, I guess this is a thing that people say around me now, so maybe I need to pick it up.