The latest season of the CBS series “Survivor” has sparked controversy when contestant Jeff Varner outed fellow castmate Zeke Smith as transgender, as reported by Vanity Fair. Though it was heartening to see other “Survivor” contestants jump to Smith’s defense, Varner’s original imposition into a very personal part of Smith’s private life is unacceptable.
We live in a polarized world. Even in the most liberal, left-leaning places, there are pockets of prejudice that can make coming out an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous process. Assumptions of what a person is comfortable to share with a wide audience is dangerous ground to tread and is exactly what Varner ignored in choosing to oust Smith on a show viewed by millions of people across the country. You don’t get to insert yourself into someone else’s business and then decide that knowledge is allowed to be broadcasted on national TV.
Even if you are out, your gender identity and how it’s presented to the rest of the world is your business and no one else’s. Varner claimed that, in the context of the game, Smith withholding this information “reveals the ability to deceive.” But at the end of the day, Smith’s gender identity isn’t a tactic to be used in a reality show as Varner seems to be insinuating. It is an extremely personal and private part of who he is that doesn’t deserve to be revealed by anyone besides himself and Varner taking it upon himself to infringe upon Smith’s right is inexcusable.
For someone who is LGBT, coming out is a never-ending process that inevitably happens with every new person they meet and is a necessary part of living in the heteronormative society we live in. So when that choice is taken away from someone, when they can’t control who knows about their identity, you take away their overall physical, mental and emotional comfort. And on the flip side, you can’t be a good guy when you out someone. You can’t reveal that personal of a fact about someone to people who obviously don’t know and then also say what you were doing doesn’t constitute as outing someone. Varner made the assumption that everyone outside of the show knew about Smith, so revealing it to millions of people wasn’t a big deal. But he needs to consider that people’s very identities are contested and are even illegal in some parts of today’s world and though we’ve made a lot of progress, you still can’t assume the world is OK enough with LGBT people to out someone to the millions of people who watch “Survivor.”
Varner’s major misstep also highlights a lesser talked about issue, which is the concept that you can’t be discriminatory when you’re also a minority. Varner is an out gay man and yet he still was extremely ignorant of the circumstances surrounding a fellow member of the LGBT community. Intersectional prejudice is clearly alive and well and doesn’t leave you exempt from blame for your mistakes. Discussion of Smith’s gender identity has nothing to do with winning on “Survivor” and if things had gone Varner’s way and he’d gotten people to agree with him, it’s very likely he never would’ve issued an apology.
With the rising openness of people’s identities, it’s crucial to be sensitive toward people’s personal willingness with what they want to share. “Survivor” has opened the door to this conversation, unfortunately through expository means. Gender identity is an extremely private and intimate facet of people’s lives and it is of the utmost importance that it is respected, regardless of whether those discussing it are themselves minorities.