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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
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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