Last night on Survivor, during a desperate attempt to throw a fellow competitor under the bus to save his own skin at tribal council, Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as a transgender man — seemingly forgetting that it wasn’t just six other players cut off from society who’d hear the news, but potentially millions. Zeke had played this season and a previous one without mentioning his transition, hoping not to be the first “trans Survivor player” but simply “Zeke the Survivor player.”
For any transgender person or trans ally (as Varner stupefyingly claimed he was), the scene was a horrifying and devastating moment. Varner argued he was simply exposing the deception Smith was capable of in this game, assuming that everyone in Zeke’s world back home already knew (never mind all of America!). But as a gay man himself who should have definitely known better, Varner robbed Zeke of his right to privacy, his right to tell his own story in the manner he wished. Varner continued to defend himself, with growing hesitation, explaining that a million dollars was on the line. But a million dollars is chump change when it comes to selling your soul.
It shouldn’t have happened. Perhaps Survivor shouldn’t have even aired the exchange. They certainly could have handled it a little more responsibly, partnering with an LGBTQ support organization and at least offering a url or 1–800 number for those seeking help or more information. But since they did air it and millions of viewers saw it (you can watch an incomplete clip below), it’s worth noting — and celebrating — that the unified reaction of all the other players at tribal council and host Jeff Probst embodied a growing public discussion with and acceptance of the LGBTQ community by mainstream, cis-gender America.
Every person there immediately and without hesitation condemned Varner’s verbal diarrhea and expressed an outpouring of support for Smith. They shouted Varner down, shaming his lack of judgment. Some started crying, so disturbed by this injustice against their fellow competitor and friend. One by one, they articulated to the country with one voice how to treat transgender people with dignity and respect:
A stone-faced Ozzy said:
Jeff, you should be ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’re willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars. It’s like, you’re playing with people’s lives at this point.
Tai, another out gay man, said:
Whenever you want to come out, as a gay person, as transgender, it’s your choice. Nobody should out anybody.
Andrea, who immediately burst into tears at the outing, said:
Just to see someone out somebody else is pretty painful. But I understand that Jeff is feeling very on the outs, and is feeling very desperate, so I do believe that he regrets it. It’s just that, man, that was really tough. I really feel for Zeke. You know, it’s his right to tell people.
Sarah, a midwestern police officer, said choking back tears:
That was a malicious attack, what you [Varner] just did…. I don’t treat people that way…. I’m just thankful that I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is. I’ve been with him for the last 18 days and he’s, like, super kick-ass. You know, I’m from the midwest, I come from a very conservative background, so it’s not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender and things like that. So I’m not as exposed to it as most of these people are, and the fact that I can love this guy so much, and it doesn’t change anything for me, makes me realize that I’ve grown huge as a person. Of course we want to come away with the million dollars but the metamorphosis that I’ve even made as a person that I didn’t even realize until this minute is invaluable.
And host Probst, both reading the room and making a moral call, said:
Well, I think I know the answer to this question, but: There’s no question who’s going home tonight, right?…We don’t need to vote, just grab your torch.
But the most eloquent reaction, the most dignified, came from Zeke himself, who showed incredible composure and grace under such unnerving circumstances. Rather than lash out in anger (as he had every right to do), Zeke remained divinely composed and thoughtful, embracing the moment as a teachable one:
I think I’m okay. Like, I knew someone might pick up on it or it might be revealed. So, like, I am prepared to talk about it, to have it be part of my Survivor experience. It’s kind of crappy the way it’s happened. But, you know, if “metamorphosis” is the word of the episode [that was the solution to the immunity challenge], I think I’ve seen such a metamorphosis of myself over the past…I think today is day 52 that I’ve played Survivor. And I don’t know the scared kid who hit the mat in the marooning in [season] 33 would be as calm as I am right now, but I’ve started two fires with just bamboo, I’ve won challenges, I’ve been a part of blindsides, I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff, and I am a changed, stronger, better man today then I was then. So, you know what, Varner it was really not cool, but you know, I’m fine….
I’m certainly not anyone who should be a role model for anybody else. But maybe there’s someone who’s a Survivor fan and me being out on the show helps him or helps her or helps someone else and so maybe this will lead to a greater good.
While Jeff Varner’s actions are deserving of derision and scorn, to his credit he did seem to learn the error of his ways in real time, realizing fairly quickly how royally he had just fucked up, how blinded he’d been by game play, and how cruel he had just been to Zeke. By the end of tribal council, it was Zeke who had to comfort Varner, though of course it should have been the other way around.
In his closing remarks after leaving the tribal council area, Varner said this, ending hunched over in tears:
I don’t even know what I was thinking. It was a horrible move. It was me in this game trying to do everything I possibly could. But nobody on this planet should do what I did tonight. Ever. And I’m so sorry to anyone I offended, especially Zeke, and his family and his friends. I can’t even talk. I’m sorry.
It’s clear that all six players who remained won the evening, in more ways than one.