Last week, the CBS reality show, Survivor, made headlines. The reason being a contestant, Zeke Smith, was betrayed by a fellow contestant- by his being outed as a transgender man.
Jeff Varner was facing elimination from the competition. In a last-ditch effort to save himself from being voted off, he decided to out Smith.
Varner claimed there was “deception” in the tribe. He directly addressed Smith, “Why haven’t you told anyone here that you’re transgender?”
“His efforts to save himself backfired, the entire tribe expressing their disgust at his actions and supporting Smith.”
His efforts to save himself backfired, the entire tribe expressing their disgust at his actions and supporting Smith. He clumsily tried to redeem himself, stating how he meant no harm, that he “fights for the rights of trans people” all the time, but the damage was already done, and he was voted off the show.
Zeke Smith had chosen to not disclose his transgender identity, saying that while he’s not ashamed of it, he “doesn’t want that to be his story.”
There are a few things that need to be discussed in this situation. First and foremost (obviously) the choice Varner made to out Smith. That alone is considered an act of violence. In most circumstances, you never know how people will react to a transgender person. The people involved can respond in any form, from open and wide acceptance to angry and violent hatefulness. The choice to reveal one’s transgender identity should always be left up to the transgender person in question, never anyone else!
Second, the wording Varner used- deception. A common idea is that transgender people are “fooling the public into thinking they are a certain gender”. His using the word “deception” as he was outing Smith adds to the danger transgender people face by continuing to fuel a myth that we are simply trying to disguise ourselves for one reason or another (an idea commonly used in things like the debate on bathroom issues) and that we will never “truly” be the genders we identify as
Third, the choice by CBS to air the episode, or the clip in general. This episode wasn’t aired live, and more than likely this incident was seen as “an opportunity to boost ratings”. However, this particular part of the incident comes with a silver lining.
“The tribe reacted with disgust toward Varner for outing Smith.”
The tribe reacted with disgust toward Varner for outing Smith. They didn’t hold back their opinions on his “unacceptable” choice, shouting things of it having “nothing to do” with the situation, and saying “nobody had the right to out anybody,” and Varner was voted off the show. This alone should show how far we’ve come in transgender acceptance. The whole tribe immediately lashed out at Varner for disclosing what wasn’t his to disclose.
Though that itself is a wonderful thing, the silver lining goes even farther- when the episode aired and ignited a firestorm, the real estate company that had hired Varner months before fired him. The reason being given as Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with” may seem like the company just not wanting to destroy their name by dropping the controversy without taking a side (okay, the intent was likely just that), but the fact that they didn’t defend him, publicly curse Smith’s name, or even send him off with any parting reward shows that there is more acceptance in the world than we realize.
“Just a few years ago, Smith would’ve likely been the one voted off the show, accompanied by a chorus of nasty and hateful words, and Varner would be praised by the tribe.”
With the news blasting the horror stories daily, we tend to think that’s all there is to the world. To take a tip from the more-than-likely reasoning of CBS, this is the stuff that sells! But when we take a step or two back and look at everything else, we can see how far we’ve come. Just a few years ago, Smith would’ve likely been the one voted off the show, accompanied by a chorus of nasty and hateful words, and Varner would be praised by the tribe. Or even if that hadn’t happened, Varner would still have his job, and the boss might’ve defended him, given him a raise, or just patted him on the head.
Though this overall was a great example of progress, we clearly still have a long way to go. Smith should not have been outed at all, and people like Varner need to understand that being an ally doesn’t give you open invitation to disclose the identity of others. It also means you understand being transgender isn’t a matter of “deception” and that outing someone can be very dangerous. We should take the bad that came from this and use it as an example of what we still need to do in terms of education and removal of stigma, but we should also take the good as a reminder that progress has been made, no matter how slow it is, living with nothing but the negative in mind will not help us.