The outing of a “Survivor” cast member on television has sparked outrage.
Zeke Smith, who appeared on back-to-back seasons of the reality series, was revealed to be a transgender man by fellow contestant Jeff Varner in an episode that aired Wednesday night.
Varner, who is gay, shared the information during an emotional Tribal Council on “Survivor: Game Changers.”
“Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” Varner asked Smith.
Other contestants reacted negatively, telling Varner that was personal and he shouldn’t have said it.
Varner insisted he did it to show that Smith was deceptive during the game.
“In proclaiming, ‘Zeke is not the guy you think he is,’ and that ‘there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,’ Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick.
In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives.”
Smith responded by explaining that he didn’t want to be labeled “the trans ‘Survivor’ player.”<
Varner’s outing was widely condemned by contestants and fans of the show. Transparent actress Trace Lysette tweeted the commonly held sentiment by those who care about trans rights: “Outing a transgender person is an act of violence.”
Varner, apologized on Twitter.
The moment on the show was met by an immediate backlash by Smith and Varner’s fellow castaways, who called Varner out for outing Smith.
“I wanted to be Zeke the ‘Survivor’ player,” Smith said.
Varner apologized but was voted off the show.Jeff Probst said “I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line. I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel. You just don’t do that to someone.”
But what has not been addressed, by the parties involved at least, is: How culpable is CBS in this outing for airing it?
If this were merely an incident of bad behavior on reality TV (seen so many times before) or even, let’s say, a hate crime against an out minority, we could easily ignore the responsibility on the part of the network by allowing it the don’t-shoot-the-messenger excuse.
The issue of outing, though, is different because it necessarily involves the dissemination of privileged information, something a national network has far more capacity to amplify than a single man amongst a handful of peers on a show’s set.
One could reasonably make the argument that Varner outed Smith to their cast while CBS outed Smith to the world. “I’m not wild about you knowing that I’m trans,” is the first line of Smith’s THR essay.
Though there are several of thousands of words in Smith’s piece, the idea of his agency in terms of how this moment was portrayed and if it would be portrayed at all is never examined.
It seems to be taken as a given: What happens on Survivor is fair game, particularly given the incredibly strict contracts—par for the course in reality TV—CBS and the production companies behind the show have contestants sign. Furthermore, Smith is such a Survivor enthusiast (he literally closes his essay by referring to the show as the “world’s greatest game”) that you don’t get the feeling he has any inclination to criticize the show on which he’s now appeared two seasons in a row.