I don’t watch home décor shows or personal improvement programs since they all appear to be cleverly staged fake events to me.
Which is why I didn’t know about Netflix's reboot of the Queer Eye concept about five gay male makeover experts until I read a profile of one of them, Tan France, by the London Times. What caught my eye wasn’t the glam clothing or hunky builds but a headline that proclaimed this man to be a Muslim.
Gay? Muslim? Out of the closet? In many parts of the world, that’s a death sentence. But fortunately, in this rather fetching story, not so in the West.
The history of social change is unpredictable. But no one expected the first gay Muslim on western TV to pop up quite like this from nowhere. Or rather, Doncaster.
When watching the Queer Eye series, your eyes are too blurry at first to notice. It is an ultra-camp, ultra-American show that seems to be about makeovers. There is a gang called the “Fab Five” of gay male style experts who descend from New York to the Deep South. There they seize on a miserable redneck in a pair of stained tracksuit bottoms. Before you know it they -- foremost among them Tan, a lithe 34-year-old Asian with a GI Joe haircut -- have made him happy with a new pastel shirt collection…
Queer Eye is not a sensational popular and critical success because of a change of outerwear. It’s because of something Tan -- full name Tan France -- says at the beginning of every episode. It is not about tolerance any more, he says. Anyone who feels like an outsider -- female, black, gay, immigrant, Muslim, whatever -- is not settling for tolerance. “Our show is fighting for acceptance.”
Hmmm. Think about that for a moment. Tolerance is peaceful co-existence. Acceptance implies that the opposition agrees to your terms.
When France was recently interviewed on NBC’s Today show, the host, Megyn Kelly, obviously struggled to make sense of this mystery man. He had never been on television before, but within six weeks of Queer Eye began to be mobbed on the street. Jon Bon Jovi wants selfies, which are broadcast to France’s 500,000 Instagram followers.
“You’re not just a gay man,” Kelly says, “but in your case an immigrant, Pakistani, Muslim gay man, all of it together!”
France smiles joyously and responds: “2018, baby!”
Doncaster, for those of you not too familiar with the UK, is in Yorkshire, northern England. We continue:
What Americans can’t understand is that France is not just an “immigrant” to America, a gay Muslim immigrant who is happily married to a Morman cowboy. France is from Doncaster. A gay Muslim from Doncaster, married to a Mormon cowboy, who is now, after being commissioned to front the second season of Queer Eye, going to become the most famous gay Muslim the markedly homophobic Islamic world has known. In other words, a brave Yorkshire unicorn in a floral shirt. Is he aware of any other gay Muslims in entertainment?
“I don’t know of any gay Muslims who are on a commercial show or in the public eye, and I think that’s a shame,” France tells me from his car in his adoptive home town of Salt Lake City, Utah.
He lives in Salt Lake?
One’s head spins. The story goes on to tell how he was raised as the son of immigrant Pakistani parents, how his father died when he was a teenager and how his mother accepted his orientation with little fuss. Then:
At 24 he met Rob France, an illustrator who was raised as a Mormon and cowboy on a cattle ranch in Wyoming; they are now married and permanently settled in Salt Lake City. Neither drinks alcohol, but France says he wants his religious practices to remain private. Still, I say, it must rank as one of the most multicultural marriages in history.
Here is where the writer veered off into other material, losing a great opportunity to hold forth on how precarious Tan France’s life would be if he were anywhere near the Middle East or parts of Asia.
All sorts of religion-rooted questions surface. How does a Muslim and a Mormon observe varying religious holidays? Does France attend a mosque? And shouldn’t readers at least be told of the contradictions within Islam about homosexuality? A reporter can’t assume that readers know.
France is not sure he can visit relatives in Pakistan again; he may not be safe. When the show first aired he got 1,000 direct messages on Instagram a day. Now he averages 600, especially from young gay people and Muslims. “So many people all over the world saying, ‘We’ve never seen a version of ourselves on TV, so happy I’m a regular bloke.’ It’s 2018 and you’ve never seen it.”
He doesn’t get death threats? That’s hard to believe. I read in several places that he talks about his faith on the show but there’s no direct quotes. The show is supposed to be all about tolerance, masculinity, race and religion.
I looked around for who else has written about this man and found this from the New York Post:
“It made it easier to date somebody who had similarities to me. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke,” says France, citing qualities both their faiths share. “We practice some of our religions’ practices. We don’t practice them all. We practice what works for us.”
France’s religion is a talking point on the new show, both on- and offscreen.
At this point, I’m dying for some react from a Muslim leader. Was there no one willing to say anything? Did anyone put in a call?
A Salt Lake Tribune piece on France unfortunately didn’t score an interview, so ended up being an aggregation of other articles. So here you’ve got a guy who makes a big point about being Muslim -– but living a life that contradicts a major Islamic tenet –- and no one’s going to ask him how he lives with that contradiction?
Are his beliefs mainly hereditary –- that is, he was born into a Muslim family but he’s not seen the inside of a mosque in ages –- or does he actually do observances like regular Friday prayers and fasting during Ramadan? The London Times story totally let him off the hook about his practices, as the reporter admitted to being so taken with France’s story, she was weeping for joy.
I can understand not questioning him if he was trying to keep his faith under the wraps but he actually uses it on Queer Eye as a prop.
So to other writers who might interview this man: Spare us the cutesy stories about this fab TV star who’s into making sure people accept his sexuality. Try to reveal the very real tensions between who he is and other Muslims and why he dare not do something like make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, as every Muslim is supposed to do at least once.
Give this man and his story some realism and depth. And maybe he’ll have talk about how he’s insisting on acceptance not only from the liberal elites of the West but from his Muslim brethren as well.