With her rainbow-colored hair, sparkly eye makeup, and iridescent nails, Beverly Tan is immediately recognizable. The 30-year-old lesbian shines with self-assurance, exuding queerness even in a run-of-the-mill coffee shop.
“I’m a wannabe lesbian icon,” Tan says with a bright smile. “I’ll be the most rainbow fish in the small pond.”
In many ways, Tan is just being herself. She loves sparkle, she loves lavender, and she loves to stand out. But in North Carolina, a queer person being themself is inevitably a statement.
“I’ll have younger queers say, ‘Wow, you’re so out there. You just look gay,’” Tan says. “There are kids out there that want to be that, but they’re scared. It is hard, especially with the recent laws here in North Carolina. I don’t think everyone has to be brave, but I am. And hopefully that can be a little bit of hope.”
Even in the liberal Triangle, Tan’s appearance has sparked backlash, she says. People on the street and online take issue with her identity and LGBTQ-focused activism, sending hate mail and berating her at community events.
But Tan hasn’t let that affect her.
“Someone’s gotta do it,” she says, whether that’s protesting North Carolina lawmakers writing bigoted bills or casting queer people of color in reality TV shows. Tan just happens to be in a position where she can step up to the plate.
“I do a lot of activism. Whenever there’s a cause … I’m at the [General Assembly], I’m driving people to polls,” she says.
“I grew up as an evangelical Christian, so I grew up doing a lot of activism on the other side of the fence. [Today] I have the physical ability, the charisma … and, when I’m employed, the money to do something good for my community. So I’m going to do it. Like your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”
The road to Hollywood
Tan, who attended high school and college in North Carolina, now spends about half her time here and half in Los Angeles. She first went to Hollywood in her midtwenties to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker, moving across the country on only three days’ notice. With persistence, she’s become one of the rare success stories.
When most of Hollywood isn’t on strike, Tan works as a development producer and casting director. In the white, male-dominated industry, she tries to create space for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. Growing up, Tan didn’t see many people who “looked or lived like me” on TV, she says—there weren’t many Asian or queer people in starring roles.
“So I thought, ‘I could fix that,’” Tan says. “We can protest, we can be actors, we can audition, we can write all day long … or I could be a casting director in big Hollywood. Become the gatekeeper, and blow those gates open for my communities.”
When Tan casts roles, “option A is a person of color. Option B is a person of color. Option C is a person of color,” she says. “What are they gonna say, ‘Where’s the white person?’”
When Hollywood abruptly shut down about three months ago due to simultaneous writers’ and actors’ strikes, Tan found herself at loose ends. Unemployed, she had enough money saved up to survive for a year or two but nothing to do.
Tan had already started one business—a 3-D printing shop—so maybe it’s not surprising that her newfound free time prompted her to start another one. Sapphic Space, a queer gift shop, originated because of Tan’s frustration at not being able to find lesbian-focused products in LGBTQ-owned businesses.
“I go to these queer-owned gift shops … but they’re all just very gay-male-oriented,” she says. “Which is great for them, but I’m a lesbian. You can’t even find the lesbian flag in half of these [stores], and I don’t think it’s because they’re sold out. So I thought to myself, like, ‘Hey, how can I fix this?’”
The actual decision came during a night of drinking, Tan confesses.
“I drank a lot of wine,” she says with a laugh. “When I drink, I don’t get hangovers. I open businesses. Like, martinis make me smarter.”
Tan’s products range from innocuously rainbow to “spicy,” she says. Her safe-for-work products include T-shirts and stickers with cute, pro-queer messages like “#Gaysian,” and “I think you’re pretty (in a gay way).” For the bolder customers, there are also clitoris-shaped earrings and a coat-hook in the shape of Tan’s fingers in a recognizably sexual position.
“It brings me great joy knowing that there are lesbians in the world that have my hand on their wall,” Tan says.
Tan mostly sells her merchandise through online stores like Etsy, although she’s also opened pop-up shops around the Triangle. Tan wants to encourage people to support queer-owned businesses like hers rather than big-box stores, she says.
“If you look online for lesbian merch, it’s Amazon. It’s not made by actual lesbians. It’s just some mass-produced drop-shipping. There’s no heart in it,” Tan says.
“It’s time that we go fight rainbow capitalism. There’s all these companies where, in June, it’s rainbows, gays! Then July 1 rolls around and they stop donating money. They stop doing anything. Target, at the first sign of complaints, pulled stock off the shelves. They’re not actual allies.”
In the coming weeks, Tan plans to open a maker space for minority artists above her workshop on Glenwood Avenue, with discounts for the most marginalized communities. Although she’s no financial guru, Tan says she also hopes to teach aspiring entrepreneurs how to make smart investments and manage budgets.
“It’s really important to me, because there’s a lot of wealth disparity in the queer community,” Tan says. “You either have a very privileged group of people or people who are struggling through no fault of their own. Like, getting kicked out at a young age … or having a hard time finding employment.”
Tan wants to create a space where art, technology, and community can intersect, she says. And, of course, where she can also make “really dumb lesbian jokes.”
“It just makes me so happy when I see other people really being themselves,” Tan says. “Existence is an act of rebellion in some places. I exist.”