If you care about LGBT issues, trans rights and media representation, or reality TV, you probably have heard by now that on Wednesday night’s Survivor, a trans man was outed. During the show’s weekly elimination segment (aka Tribal Council), Jeff Varner, who was on the chopping block, asked his fellow contestant, Zeke Smith, “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?” Varner implied that Smith’s withholding of this information from his tribe showed that he was not trustworthy and should be eliminated from the show.
“In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder,” writes Smith in a lengthy essay on the incident and his gender identity for The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
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, who is gay, apologized on Twitter. The moment on the show was met by immediate backlash by Smith and Varner’s fellow castaways, who called Varner out for outing Smith.
In The Hollywood Reporter, Smith writes that despite reacting cooly on the show, he’s had a hard time forgiving Varner in the months since the episode was shot. Survivor host Jeff Probst said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
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.
Survivor packaged the outing as a scandalous plot point, going as far as to tease it (as Smith writes in his essay: “‘Zeke’s not being truthful. There’s something about Zeke that nobody knows,’ Varner told Andrea earlier in the episode”). This is not a simple case of letting cameras roll, catching a live feed, and letting whatever happens happens. This moment, and the identity it revealed, was sculpted and commodified.
This is not a simple case of the truth setting someone free, either: Though Smith writes passionately and eloquently about his identity, he concedes that “coming out” as trans doesn’t quite have the joyousness attached to it as it does for gay people:
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.
And now CBS has facilitated that on a greater scale. (The moral thorniness is such that I wonder if by writing this, I too, am helping facilitate this for those unfamiliar with the events of last night’s episode.) Were there conversations behind the scenes of how to present this footage sensitively? In a statement, GLAAD said that their Transgender Media Program “worked with Zeke Smith and CBS for several months to ensure that when the episode aired Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience.”
Still, questions remain. Was there a possibility of not airing it, perhaps merely hinting it or doing one of those hatchet editing jobs so common on reality TV? Was Zeke Smith given any agency in presenting his identity to the world, after his outing in front of his tribe? (Jeff Probst has loosely suggested that he was, though we have no details.) These are the questions that I think need to be answered to fully understand the ethicality of the situation. I’ve reached out to CBS for comment and will update this post if and when I hear back.
Update 2: CBS, per Vulture, has also...responded. The network’s statement reads:
After the tribal council scene in last night’s Survivor was filmed, we consulted with Zeke Smith and with GLAAD in advance of the broadcast, including the issue of how Zeke would tell his story after the episode aired.
From his first season through the current edition, we have always been guided by the principle that this is his story to tell, and it remains so. We support how Jeff Probst and the producers handled a very sensitive situation and marvel at the grace Zeke exhibited under extraordinary circumstances.