Transphobia permeates coverage of ‘Survivor’ contestant

At the end of last week’s episode of Survivor, Jeff Varner outed fellow Survivor contestant Zeke Smith as trans on a national platform, creating one of the most devastating and disturbing moments I have ever seen on television.

I can’t offer a firsthand opinion on this as a trans person. Centering trans voices here is important, and I suggest reading up on what trans people have had to say about this, including Zeke himself in an article for the Hollywood Reporter. What I can offer, however, is the perspective of someone who is a bit of an expert on the show Survivor, which I think is one worth offering for the sake of discussing this event. A better understanding for those who don’t follow Survivor on what happened and what dynamics were at work may help to illuminate why this moment was even more terrible and complex than the mainstream narrative that is currently being discussed.

On the outs with his group, Varner was almost certainly going to be voted out that night. In his desperation to finally make the jury stage of the game after three seasons, he sunk lower than anyone ever has for a million dollars that we’ve seen in 17 years of the show by putting someone’s real life outside of the game in danger.

In trying to expose a secret alliance between Zeke and Ozzy Lusth, Varner announced that there was “deceit” at play among the group. And then he turned to Zeke and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

With this utterance, Varner perpetuated one of the most dehumanizing and dangerous stereotypes about trans people: that by being themselves, they are being deceptive–that the real them is their existence pre-transition.

Zeke played in two consecutive seasons of Survivor, and because of the logistics of filming, no one playing on this season had seen Zeke’s first season yet. Varner assumed that Zeke’s trans identity would have been discussed in his first season and therefore did not realize he was outing him to the audience. However, this is absolutely no excuse for what he did; in fact, it’s a monumental example of why no one should feel that they have the right to share anyone’s gender history or status as a trans person. No one has the right to out anyone to anyone, whether it be to the six people he thought he was outing Zeke to, or the millions that he actually did. Once you release that information, the trans person no longer has control over who hears it. Outing a trans person is putting their comfort, wellbeing and life at risk. Jeff Varner, in his apology, released on his social media accounts just after the episode aired, described what he did as “assault.”

Trans people are not obligated to share their gender history. Zeke was under no obligation to carry the title of the first trans Survivor player if he didn’t want to, which he didn’t–and now he is forced to. Zeke was cast because he is a smart, strategic, upbeat, charismatic guy who is amazing to watch on television, and that is what he wanted his narrative to be. Trans people are not obligated to be role models or representatives of their communities. In a game where players are stripped of their personal lives and possessions, there is no obligation to bring deeply personal information into the game, and Zeke should have been no exception.

And the circumstance under which the outing happened further denied Zeke the power over his own narrative. What Varner did was even more egregious in context than it looks to outsiders. Zeke, while facing this devastating event, is still in a game for a million dollars. Reacting strongly, violently, angrily at all could have jeopardized his chances to win, even though he had just been the victim of a violent transphobic act. As Varner exited, Zeke instead gave him a hug. From this point on, Zeke will play this game that already causes immense stress with the added burden of knowing that his life will change forever when this episode airs, and knowing that the information will probably spread to his fellow competitors.

Varner outed Zeke during “tribal council,” the meeting that the players attend before voting someone out of the game. As two-time Survivor player Stephen Fishbach said in a podcast that streamed just after the episode aired, tribal council is the place where shocking information is “least likely to impact the vote but most likely to make air.” Because of how Varner did this, CBS could not edit it out.

Furthermore, the public display did not make any strategic sense; there was no way it would ever work, making its maliciousness even more apparent. If Varner had brought it up on the beach in the hours they had before the vote, it would have still been inexcusable, but it would not have made the episode, and CBS would have been able to protect Zeke. When Varner outed Zeke at tribal council, though, it caused a public explosion of emotion. All of the other players shut Varner down without hesitation. They yelled at him and sobbed for Zeke. By the end of the conversation, host Jeff Probst decided it would be disrespectful to go through the formality of a vote. Instead, he asked Varner to come forward, and he snuffed his torch, symbolizing the end of his game. There was no way for production to edit around this, and I am grateful that the editors and Probst treated this with the care and seriousness it deserved.

However, I do not find CBS to be completely blameless. All evidence suggests that Varner planned this attack. It came at the end of a calculated speech about why they should keep him in the game. Before they went to the meeting, Varner essentially alluded to having something up his sleeve for tribal council. Former Survivor players Corinne Kaplan and Max Dawson expressed their skepticism with CBS’s role in this moment in their podcast, pointing out how extensive those confessional interviews with producers are. Kaplan and Dawson guessed that the producers almost definitely knew that there was a chance Varner would do this. And instead of telling Varner that no, that was absolutely off-limits in order to protect Zeke, they may have waited to see how it would play out, knowing that trans issues are at the forefront of today’s cultural conversation. I don’t think it is at all far-fetched to suggest that the producers may have knowingly exploited Zeke and let this happen in order to get media attention. However, what absolutely did not happen is a deliberate setup by all involved. Survivor is not a scripted show; these are not actors. Claiming that this is fake or scripted belittles the pain that Zeke has gone through because of this and how it will impact his life in very real ways.

I need to stress that this wasn’t some conservative moron who did this. Jeff Varner is gay and has been an outspoken advocate for the trans community. Both he and Zeke have been two of my most beloved Survivor players. This made it all the harder to watch, all the more painful for everyone involved, and all the more important to talk about. Just because you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you are not automatically given status as a good ally for trans people. This was not a purely evil man who did this. This is far more complex, and to simplify this to a good/evil binary is erasing the very real issue of dangerous conceptions of trans people, even by people who feel that they have the best intentions.

In his podcast with Stephen Fishbach that streamed right after the episode aired live, full-time Survivor podcaster and legend Rob Cesternino, as if he knew what would happen in the coming days, said: “Jeff Varner doesn’t get to be the victim here.” Varner understands the gravity of the mistake he made; he realized it the moment he did it and was in tears with remorse in his final words. This does not make it excusable, and he understands that. He has since lost his job and has been reportedly near-suicidal. By villainizing Varner and ruining his life, though, we as cis people are ignoring the chance to analyze our own behavior and how to speak up against the harmful behavior of those around us. Instead, attacking Varner has become a pat-on-the-back moment: “Hey, look what this guy did! I would never do that!” The narrative has shifted away from supporting Zeke in the name of a false illusion of self-congratulations.

This story getting as much attention as it has is the worst thing that could have happened for everyone involved, of course for Zeke more than for anyone. By spreading this story with little context, the news outlets have branded Zeke as “THE trans Survivor player,” which is exactly what he said he did not want. It is so important to be conscious of the narratives we are participating in as we are reeling in shock even a week later.

Please read Zeke’s piece for The Hollywood Reporter to read his firsthand account; it is an incredible article. If you are cis, take this moment as a chilling reminder of the importance of listening to trans people about how you can best support and protect them.

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