An episode of "Survivor," which aired Wednesday night, sparked protest and indignation online over a tactic used by one contestant against another in an effort to save himself.
Zeke Smith, one of the show's contestants, was outed as transgender by another contestant, Jeff Varner. Many critics noted that more troubling than the outing itself was the equation of transgender identity with deception.
The outing occurred during the show's "Tribal Council"— the elimination ceremony that takes place in the game where contestants are "voted off the island." In a last-ditch attempt to save himself from elimination, Varner, an openly gay man, alleged that Smith had been deceitful in not revealing his gender history. "There is deception here. Deceptions on levels...that these guys don’t even understand,” Varner said, before turning to Smith.
“Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
Immediately the other players reacted with shock, anger and condemnation. Backpedaling, Varner responded, "I argue for the rights of transgender people every day in the state of North Carolina. I would never say or do anything to hurt anyone here. Jeff, I’m arguing for my life. I feel like I’ve got to throw everything at the wall."
Quickly, Varner's indignation turned to apologies after he realized that his plan had backfired.
People on Twitter were quick to condemn the outing:
While other Twitter users preached forgiveness:
Jeff Probst, the show's host, wrote a tweet in response to viewers' reactions:
Smith responded in an op-ed he wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.
"Many gay people consider coming out a moment of liberation, because sharing their sexual orientation with the world causes them to be seen more authentically. Often, the opposite is true for trans people. When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically — doubting, probing or denying our identities," he wrote. Since the show is taped well ahead of time, Smith worked with Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD) Transgender Media Program to find a way for him to express himself in his own words.
He went on to explain why he thought Varner had felt compelled to deploy the hateful tactic, writing, "I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes."
Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, released a statement, saying:
"Zeke Smith, and transgender people like him, are not deceiving anyone by being their authentic selves, and it is dangerous and unacceptable to out a transgender person. It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are."
Smith posted tweets Wednesday night offering an olive branch and directed his followers to GLAAD's guide on how to be an ally.
While this incident has shined a much needed light on transgender issues, as Jennifer Finney Boylan writes in the New York Times there's a larger issue at play society will need to reckon with, which is that a person's gender and sexual history really is no one's business:
"But a trans identity isn’t a secret. It’s private. There’s a difference. Not revealing one’s private medical history doesn’t mean that someone isn’t who you think they are. Zeke Smith wasn’t hiding his identity. He just didn’t think it was anybody’s business."