Survivor host Jeff Probst said it best: “You can’t unring the bell.”
I’m usually the first to hear when trans headlines make the news. Mom beat me to it last night. Her text, “You better turn on Survivor,” a show I normally ignore, lacked further explanation. What we saw was uniquely beautiful yet troubling, emblematic of existence in this world while trans.
Zeke Smith, a two-time contestant on the CBS reality show’s 33rd, and now 34th, season of scheming tropical castaways, was viciously and needlessly outed as a transgender man by fellow participant Jeff Varner. “There is deception here, Jeff [referring to Probst], on levels that these guys don’t even understand,” Varner accused, before confronting Zeke on why he had not yet told anyone.
What followed was remarkable. Zeke’s fellow contestants embraced him and unequivocally called Varner out on his dipshit move; a pointless one at that. “You should be ashamed of yourself for what you are willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars," one said. "It’s like you are playing with people’s lives at this point.” Varner found no sympathy in host Jeff Probst, as he flailed, alternating between justifying himself and expressing regret.
Zeke, whose expression was cut to often as others talked about him, remained composed. He showed grace, charm, and boundless self-confidence, the true measures any man or woman in your life should be packing. When Varner interjected that he was Zeke’s biggest cheerleader — digging his hole deeper — Zeke could have ripped him a new one. Instead, his simple, “I don’t even need a cheerleader, because I know I can do whatever I want to,” was tear-jerking perfection. Someone please give this gentleman a GLAAD award — or an Emmy — for this sentence alone.
The problem is that transgender people are routinely exploited for teachable moments.
Everyone should watch these ten minutes of television. The problem is that transgender people are routinely exploited for teachable moments on the airwaves, even by well-intentioned hosts and producers. I myself once got the genitals question on live news, and it was tremendously awkward. It feels awful to highlight anything positive that resulted from Zeke's experience, but Zeke himself has made it clear that his presence on the show might inspire fans out there, and lead to a greater good.
The consequences of being outed as trans — or potentially as anything else — are easily detached from the person who did it, yet linger forever with the outed individual. Revealing someone’s private information opens up space for others’ personal biases, which can easily become a matter of life or death. It is impossible to control how another person might react in the moment or the future, or to prevent them from further outing this person.
A simple way to explain outing a trans person, intentionally or otherwise, is to imagine having just yelled out the name of a previous partner, while in bed or at the mall, with your current partner. That information is irrelevant and very likely hurtful, even if it was an accident. Nothing good ever comes from bringing past partners up. We have all done it, and slipping up is human, but we still try really hard not to, because it cannot be undone.
Should the public have seen this footage in the first place? The producers may have feared interceding with their game in the moment, but a conscious decision was made well in advance of last night to air an exchange filmed in Fiji this past June in its entirety. CBS now has a role in outing Zeke to the world. This episode’s ironic title is “What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile.” What liabilities might CBS, any other network, or any other company, have if an employee or contractor’s private information gets released, whether intentionally or de facto? Being trans, like an HIV status, easily falls under confidential medical history.
I believe that not hiding my past might help someone else to stop hiding their future.
There is no deception in who or what trans people are. I do not “pass” for a woman; I am a woman. If anything, I am revealing more of my authentic self now than I ever could through 28 years of my life. I believe that not hiding my past might help someone else to stop hiding their future. Notoriety comes at a price. I will never know for sure who truly sees me as female. Perhaps they just feel they are being kind enough to play along with how I perceive myself, at least in my presence. I chose to become a public figure; this decision was made for Zeke.
We need to hold the Varners of the world accountable, too. This starts at CBS, who can make it clear that his actions, whether ultimately aired or not, are reprehensible. This Survivor season, like its predecessors, will likely end with a live stateside reunion and winner revelation. One hopes the producers will ask Varner to consider himself unwelcome, and unworthy of further mention. Jeff Probst called off any formal vote. “Just grab your torch,” he told Varner and, hopefully off-camera, added a big GTFO.
Hannah Simpson, a transgender advocate, marathoner, and unabashed nerd, appeared in Refinery29’s Trans America series. She frequently comments on trans issues and was recently featured as a guest with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, as well as on WNYW Fox 5's Good Day New York. You can follow her on on Twitter at @hannsimp, or Instagram at @hsimpson.
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