We’re Not Mad At Jeff Varner, We’re Mad At Television

The "Survivor" castaway's outing of Zeke Smith was anything but a surprise.

I was walking through the living room while my housemate was catching up on last season’s Survivor, and I saw Zeke Smith on screen.

“Oh, there’s a trans guy on the show?,” I said to myself. “Cool. Is he out?”

In my eyes it was pretty obvious he was trans. And I don’t mean he doesn’t “pass”: I’ve spent enough time around trans men, at every stage and age, that I’m tuned in differently. It’s no different than the way I exchange subtle nods with other “passable” trans women in public. Not “Aha!,” but rather “I see you, girl, and I got your back.”

My housemate and I Googled and couldn’t find any public mention of him being trans, so I figured the show was saving it for a dramatic moment. It’s reality television after all.

It’s what I didn’t do that’s important, though: I didn’t tweet about it. (And I tweet about everything.) I didn’t have to think it through. There was no desire to be in the know or prompt a news story: You don’t out people.

Well, aside from elected legislators who vote against LGBT rights. But you don’t out anyone else!

I’m sure there were many other trans people who recognized Smith as one of our own. My former roommate, a trans guy and Survivor fan, loved talking about the show week to week. But you know what he never did? That’s right—he didn’t mention it on Facebook.

So I was surprised when I went on Twitter last night and saw folks upset about a trans contestant being outed on the current season, Survivor: Game Changers.

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

Outed? Smith was back for another season, so I assumed he and the producers had decided on an appropriately touching moment for him to share his truth. I harbored a small hope that it would never come up at all, honestly, because how cool would that be? But it’s television and trans is still a polarizing public issue, so I couldn’t expect producers to pass up strategically exploiting it.

But this isn’t live television: How could someone be outed on a pre-recorded—and highly edited—show like Survivor?

Eventually, I saw the clip, in which fellow contestant Jeff Varner, in a desperate attempt to avoid being voted off, trotted out Smith’s lack of disclosure as evidence of his being deceptive.

“Why haven’t you told anyone you are transgender?” Varner asked, turning to Smith.

And with horror I saw total shock on Smith’s face. He had been outed to millions of viewers, as well as to anyone in his personal life who didn’t know. This was clearly not part of his plan.

Then I understood the outrage.

survivor
CBS

But I don’t understand why that outrage was focused so solely on Varner: He undoubtedly broke with decorum, and in any other setting I’d have read him to filth, too. But this was Survivor. I don’t know much about the show, but I know enough to know a big part of its appeal is the ways in which participants manipulate each other. This is a show in which villains become cultural icons.

Varner’s desperate gambit was understandable in the context of the game, and its spectacular failure made for damn good television. That’s why the culpability doesn’t end with him.

What was shown on air was not a a single moment of a bad guy outing a good guy, though that narrative is compelling. The scene was the result of many decisions, by many people, over a long period of time—a process culminating with the audience feeling simultaneously shocked by and morally superior to Varner.

He was emphatically denounced by everyone at the Tribal Council. Even host Jeff Probst condemned him: “We don’t need to vote. Just grab your torch.” The op-eds and Twitter threads that followed are all part of the same game. Even reading these words right now is to participate in the public performance of an emerging set of social practices.

Like it or not, this is one of the ways we learn right from wrong.

As a trans person I empathize with Smith’s horror at being outed, but I also acknowledge, even applaud, Survivor teaching a lesson that many Americans have not yet learned, even a gay man like Varner: Everyone must be respected for the journey they’re on.

The moral clarity of that lesson, its total lack of ambiguity, was reinforced by the Tribal Council’s swift and passionate reaction. They were the Greek chorus in this contemporary tragedy, chasing our antagonist off the stage. While the producers are our playwrights, looking at the horrified audience with satisfaction, having successfully imparted a well-orchestrated moral.

No one will make the same mistake again.

Jen Richards is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and producer.
@smartassjen