Category Archives: gay panic

The Transgender Outing On Survivor

Two weeks ago on Survivor, one of the contestants, Zeke Smith, was forcibly outed as transgender by another contestant. It made the news, or I wouldn’t have heard about it. Outing people without their consent is a majorly uncool thing to do, and the incident prompted me to watch my first episode of Survivor in at least a decade.

Several initial thoughts come to my mind before I address the matter of the outing. I’ve itemized them.

  1. How is Survivor still a thing? Does it have any relevance today? Do people actually watch it? I see from Wikipedia that it still draws decent ratings, although they’re miniscule compared to those of the first few seasons. I don’t know that I know anyone who still watches the show, but obviously it’s still profitable. I watched Survivor faithfully in its early seasons. The season I remember best is the second one, set in Australia. I liked the aw-shucks charm of boy-next-door Texan Colby Donaldson, and had a major crush on the contestant who, sadly, later became a talking head on The View and revealed herself to be a right-wing buffoon.
    After several more seasons, the show had become so repetitive, with the tropical island watersports challenges, the predictable deal making and backstabbing, that I’d had enough. By the middle of the Aughts, I no longer watched the show. The last season I watched was the season nicknamed “Survivor: Race War,” in which contestants were sorted into tribes of white people, black people, Latinos, and Asians. For reals. Despite all the exotic locales the show has visited, it has struggled to find moral high ground.
    Apparently Jeff Varner, the wrongdoer in this recent incident, had also been a contestant in the Australia season that I remember so fondly. I have no recollection of him.

    Zeke Smith, the aggrieved party.

  1. This season is titled Survivor: Game Changers, and all the contestants have competed before. Is every season now an “all-stars” kind of thing? After 34 iterations, has the show run out of new people who are interested in competing on the show? And speaking of which:
  2. Thirty-four seasons? How ridiculous is that? Those are numbers you associate with Meet The Press or 60 Minutes, not a show that has only existed during this millennium. Does Jeff Probst aspire to do nothing else? Does he like spending two months of every year primitive camping on tropical islands that much?

I’ll say one thing for the show: it has stuck with what must be a winning formula. Even the dialogue is unchanged. Jeff Probst still beckons the tribes in to the challenge areas with “come on in, guys,” with exactly the same wording and inflection he’s always used.

The reward challenge, with some minor treat symbolizing the comforts of civilization at stake (in this episode, it was ten pizzas accompanied by cold soda), is the same as it’s always been. The immunity challenge, with immunity from tribal council at stake, also has not changed.

What also hasn’t changed is that both challenges were done and dusted before the episode was half over. The rest of the episode’s running time was consumed by the losing tribe’s members scheming, wheeling and dealing about the upcoming vote, and by the tribal council itself.

The contestants all had moments alone with several of their tribemates, including Zeke, and also some time alone with the camera. I might have followed everyone’s strategy talk better if I had been watching this season all along, but there’s really not a lot of variation in these things. There’s always a group of contestants who talk about loyalty and honesty; there are others who say all’s fair in “the game,” and that they’re “not here to make friends.” Still others act as if they’re above the politics and claim they just want to go along to get along.

Jeff Varner, the villain.

And then there’s always one guy—it was legendarily Machiavellian Richard Hatch in the inaugural season of the show—who juggles his team’s feelings like bean bags, promising everything to everyone while clearly only caring for himself.

This character was personified by Jeff Varner in this episode. Varner discussed his plans with the camera like Iago to his audience in Othello. He said he liked Zeke, but that he thought he knew something about Zeke, some secret that Zeke hadn’t told anyone, and that while he didn’t want to have to use this secret against Zeke, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it looked like he (Varner) would be on the short end of the torch at tribal council.

In hindsight it’s obvious what he meant. Not obvious is how what Varner was hinting he’d be divulging could in any way save him from being voted off the island. Was he thinking his teammates would be so disgusted by the presence of a trans person in their midst that ejecting Zeke would override any other concerns? We can only guess.

Before the vote, Varner continued to play the standard villain role. He told several of them that Zeke and another player, Ozzie (a veteran of the show starting with the Survivor: Race War season) were plotting against them, and they appeared to believe it. Again, it’s astounding that the show can still find people this naïve to be contestants. Even I, dropping in on this one episode, could easily see Varner wasn’t to be trusted. And apparently everyone on the show this season had competed before, so it’s a fool-me-twice situation for anyone who gets bamboozled by another player.

At the tribal council, Varner acknowledged that he would likely be voted out, but still tried to make the case for voting out Ozzie instead. Standard desperation ploy.

But then his argument took an abrupt turn. He told Jeff Probst:

“There’s deception here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.”

He paused then, and Probst asked him to continue, which he did.

Varner turned to Zeke, and without further ado, asked bluntly, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

I knew that outing was going to happen—it’s the only reason I was watching in the first place. And yet, I still found the outing so shocking I had to pause the episode and take a moment before continuing.

Transgender men, in general, enjoy a privilege that transgender women, in general, do not. That is, trans men are more likely to look cisnormative, which means they get to choose whether or not to live their lives in “stealth” mode. It’s up to them to disclose their transgender status, and if they keep it to themselves, no one’s the wiser.

I don’t know how Varner figured out that Zeke was trans; as a gay man himself, maybe Varner has met more transgender people in his life than people outside our community, and so recognizes subtle clues. That doesn’t make what he did in any way okay. He should know himself what a horrible act of psychological violence it is to out another person. Even worse, the phrasing of his question made it seem Zeke had some obligation to disclose his transgender status to the rest of his tribe.

Let’s be clear about this: Survivor is a game show. It requires a much larger commitment than The Price Is Right or Jeopardy!, but it’s still just a game show. While there are a small number of situations in which a transgender person could reasonably be expected to reveal their transgender status to others, none of those situations are likely to arise in the course of competing on a game show.

There are zero situations in which it’s reasonable for another person to out a person as transgender without that person’s consent.

Zeke looked shocked when Varner outed him, and he didn’t answer or respond in any other way.

To the great credit of the rest of the tribe, they immediately rose up against Varner.

“That’s personal!” one dark-haired woman said. “That is so wrong of you to bring that up!” the older Asian man shouted.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Ozzy told Varner.

To a person, the tribe rejected Varner’s premise that Zeke was in any way “deceiving” people, or had done anything wrong. To a person, they were livid.

Even Jeff Probst, who typically adopts a pose of objectivity at the tribal councils, essentially told Varner he was being a creep. It really was a sight to behold.

In the face of this backlash, Varner folded like a broken umbrella, expressed regret, wept, and begged Zeke to forgive him. He did seem sincerely contrite. I can say that much for him. But I wonder if he would have backpedaled if the tribe hadn’t been so quick to condemn him.

Prompted by Jeff Probst, Zeke turned this clusterfuck into a teachable moment about living one’s truth; he said that he had only ever wanted to be “Zeke the Survivor contestant,” not “Zeke the trans Survivor contestant.” Now that it was out, he shrugged, and said he hoped living his life “out” from this moment on, before the millions of viewers of the show, could help bring solace and courage to some kid watching who’s contemplating their own transition.

He was a class act, in other words.

Varner then left the show in a voice vote, which I’ve never seen happen on the show before. In his exit confessional during the closing credits, he told the camera “No one should ever do what I did,” then buried his head in his hands.


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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006, Part 2.

This s Part 2. Find Part 1 here.

Hallowe’en fell on a Tuesday that year. I woke up much earlier than usual, and for the first time in my working life I dressed in a way I would one day dress routinely. I put on black tights, a black pencil skirt, knee-high black boots with a moderate heel, and a red turtleneck sweater. I took my time applying my makeup; it was complete, but understated. I didn’t carry a purse; I was already in the habit of bringing my essentials to work each day in a messenger bag I’d received from WABE 90.1 FM during a pledge drive, so I just stuck with that.

I looked as professional, as normal, as ordinary as any other woman working in the Office of Legislative Counsel. No one would have looked twice at me outside the work context.

When I was ready to leave the house I realized I’d allowed much more time than I needed, so on a whim, I drove to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce and bought two dozen doughnuts for my colleagues. It wasn’t the first time I had brought doughnuts to work. I’m not sure why I did it this time. I guess I was a little nervous, so maybe I hoped they’d be a distraction. “Good morning! Yes, it’s me, Glenn, dressed as a girl. Hey look, a fresh hot glazed!”

When I got to the Capitol I passed the first hurdle. Obviously, my “costume” didn’t look like a costume—I looked like a woman, as I did every day outside the workplace. But my employee badge had my photo on it, and I didn’t look like a woman there. And the state troopers at all the entrances check badges. I didn’t know how to play it.pumpkin-157050_960_720

I decided just to motor through. I clipped my badge to the bottom edge of my sweater, shouldered my messenger bag, and took the doughnut boxes in my arms. Just inside the basement entrance, I confidently strode toward the troopers, bypassing the conveyor-belt scanner which non-employees are obliged to use. The troopers looked at me, nodded, and let me on past. Maybe they recognized me and realized I was in “costume;” more likely, they saw my badge but didn’t bother to examine it, and just assumed I was an employee because I had a badge and acted like one.

I usually climbed the grand marble stairs up to our office. This day, since I was carrying precious cargo and wearing heels, I took the elevator. This put me half a floor too high, since our level was a mezzanine, but it was easy to walk down a few stairs than to walk up twice as many. Make gravity your friend whenever possible. I live my life by that maxim.

Once inside the office I went to the kitchen/break room to drop the Krispy Kremes on the dining table. Two of my coworkers were already there. Jimmy, one of the attorneys, was making the morning coffee. He wasn’t in a costume. Barbara, a legal secretary, was putting candy on the table. Barbara was in costume.

Barbara was wearing a voluminous black dress, a pointy witch’s hat, and a witch mask—one of those cheap ones with the elastic band they sell at Target and Party City. She was really camping it up, too. I want to say she was carrying a broom, but I wouldn’t swear to it. She definitely was making with a manic wicked-witch cackle of a laugh, and threatened those present with various fearful transformation spells. She really committed to the Hallowe’en spirit.

Sort of like this one.

Sort of like this one.

She and Jimmy both failed to recognize me until I told them good morning. Then they both knew it was me, and both laughed. Jimmy’s laugh sounded a little nervous, but Barbara was delighted and praised my look.

I headed on back to the editors’ office. Eugie was already at her desk; she was almost always there first. Today she was also in costume. Like Barbara, she was wearing a black dress; unlike Barbara, Eugie’s dress was fitted, and she was also wearing what appeared to be a pair of black rabbit ears.

She looked up in delight when she saw me enter the office. I’d told her about the plan, and she thought it was a good one. And she liked my outfit. I complimented her costume, then asked her what kind of rabbit she was supposed to be.

Turns out she wasn’t wearing a rabbit costume. She patiently explained to me that she was a phouka, a mischievous spirit from Irish folklore, like the title character in the Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey. I accepted the distinction with a nod. Eugie was nothing if not idiosyncratic, and she reveled in obscure cultural references. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one who made that mistake today.

The workday began normally at 8:30. I should mention that Beth was out sick that day. Over the next couple of hours, several other coworkers (most of them secretaries, but a couple of the attorneys as well) ducked into our office to take a look at me. None of them seemed freaked out or disapproving; the general take was amusement, or even admiration. “He makes a better woman than we do!” said one of the secretaries, all of whom were women.

Eugie looked nothing like this. Source: stefi-heartlilly.deviantart.com

Eugie looked nothing like this.
Source: stefi-heartlilly.deviantart.com

I should note that most of the around 30 people who worked at the Office of Legislative Counsel were not in costume that day. There was no strong tradition of wearing Hallowe’en costumes at the Capitol. But several of us were in costume, and there were no official rules against wearing costumes on special occasions.

There were no rules whatsoever, for that matter. The OLC had no employee handbook. There was no dress code. No code of behavior of any sort, and no human resources department to vet such a code if it were ever created. As I’ve said on many other occasions, the OLC was like an office out of the 1950s, where traditional values and conformist behavior were simply presumed and counted upon. In the short run, this lack was not a fact that favored me.

Around 10:30 Sewell Brumby walked through the door of our office. As I noted before, he never did this. Ever. Inside our department there were many stairs and a long hallway between his office and ours, he was a chain smoker, and he was rumored to have a heart condition. In all the time I’d been there, he’d never found it necessary to enter the editors’ domain.

Yet here he was, striding straight across the room to my desk, glaring at me through narrowed eyelids. He stopped at the corner of my desk, and without any preamble, said, “Glenn, the way you’re dressed is inappropriate, and you need to go home.”

I was dumbfounded. My mind had trouble processing the presence of Sewell in our office in the first place; adding in his state of such extreme agitation at such a small provocation, and I didn’t know how to react at all. My mouth gaped.

[T]he way you’re dressed is inappropriate, and you need to go home.

I blinked and glanced over at Eugie, who looked every bit as shocked as I felt. Sewell followed my gaze over to Eugie, then turned back to me, the anger in his face unchanged. He must have taken in Eugie’s costume, but he gave it no thought at all.

“Are you serious?” I finally asked. He was obviously serious, but it was all I could think to say.

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” he said back, and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. “Go home.”

He turned around and stomped out.

I knew better than to defy him. I gathered up my things and left.


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America’s Got Transphobia

Earlier today I saw the YouTube clip of octogenarian Ray Jessel performing a song on an episode of the NBC reality show America’s Got Talent. It was moderately appalling, but, you know, what’s not these days? I assumed it was an old clip someone on Facebook had recently shared (what’s not these days?), and I quickly forgot about it.

It wasn’t until a few hours later that I noticed Ray Jessel and his song were trending on Twitter, and that his episode had aired just last night. That’s when I realized I needed to come here and post about it.

In the song, Jessel related that he began seeing a woman. She was lovely, stylish, well-dressed, etc., but unfortunately (and this is the refrain), “She’s got a penis.” This discovery, of course, was a deal breaker.

When he first hit that line, the judges and studio audience went nuts with laughter. As he continued, explaining that he must draw the line at male genitalia, and that moreover hers was bigger than his, the judges and audience surrendered completely to their hysterical mirth. In the vernacular, they “lost their shit.” Ray finished the song to wild applause and a standing ovation from Howie Mandel. He then had this exchange with Howie, Heidi Klum, and the woman I assume is the former Scary Spice:

Heidi Klum: Did this happen to you? Is this a true story and you turned it into a song?
Ray Jessel: Something like that happened to a friend of mine.
Scary Spice (making air quotes): A “friend of mine.”
Howie Mandel (in a dubious tone): Ooohhh…
Ray: I know those “friend of mine” things, but this is true, actually.

The judges then awarded Jessel four “Yes” votes, which apparently is an unusually high score. You’re probably getting that I’m not a regular viewer of this show.

Now, everyone get out your Transphobia Tropes cards. Let’s see what we have in the song and the subsequent conversation:

  • Transgender women are “really” men.
  • Transgender women go stealth in order to “trick” or “surprise” the men they become intimate with.
  • Straight men don’t date transgender women.
  • A man who admits to having a an experience such as this should be mocked for maybe being gay.

Did anybody score a bingo? There are no prizes.

We are in the summer of 2014, yes? I didn’t unwittingly go back in time to a day before Laverne Cox was TIME magazine’s cover girl? Before she and Carmen Carrera schooled Katie Couric and Wendy Williams on how to be respectful of transgender people? Before California passed AB 1266? Before a string of favorable court decisions strongly hinted that maybe it’s not so nice to dehumanize transgender people and treat them like circus freaks anymore? Because that’s what it feels like.

I can give Mr. Jessel himself a pass. I wouldn’t expect most of his generation to know any better; he grew up in less enlightened times (although I know men in their 80s who do know better). Call me ageist, but studies back me up: homophobia and transphobia are negatively correlated with age. That kind of ignorance is solving itself actuarially.

In fairness, transphobia wasn’t the only reason he was so well received by the crowd. He also benefited from what I call the “Betty White” effect. Senior citizens aren’t expected to talk about sex, or even know about sex that isn’t wholesomely missionary, marital, and mid-century. Those who defy that expectation get comedy cred, even if what they’re saying isn’t objectively funny. At least a third of Jessel’s appeal last night was in his willingness to say “penis” out loud. Howard Stern made this reading explicit by admitting how impressed he was that Ray, at his age, still had a sense of humor. Scary Spice expressed the same sentiment, more obliquely, calling Jessel a “naughty, funny” old man.

But transphobia was the primary reason Jessel was such a hit. The judges were unabashed about it; their wink-winking and nudge-nudging was adolescent and puerile. They should have known better. At least Heidi Klum should have.

The producers most certainly should have known better; they must have chosen Jessel and vetted his performance ahead of time.

It isn’t just thin-skinned “political correctness” to take exception to jokes about “trans panic” or “gay panic” humor. I can ignore rudeness, or shake it off. Hurt feelings aren’t the only thing at stake. Reducing transgender people to a punch line gets people killed. It’s not funny.