On last night’s (Wednesday) episode of Survivor — yes, the show is still on the air and in its 34th season — contestant Jeff Varner outed his competitor Zeke Smith as transgender to their teammates and, in turn, to millions of Americans. The episode was a heartbreaking reminder that the stereotypes surrounding trans people have not evolved.
With Varner’s closest ally (two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine) out of the game, he found himself outnumbered this week and sure to be voted out by his teammates. But Varner and Smith bonded over being gay men (Varner only recently came out as gay publicly this season, his third on the show), and he thought he’d found a new ally in Smith, one who could keep him in the game. When Smith realized that his teammates weren’t at all interested in keeping Varner, he gave him a heads-up — and Varner immediately went into self-preservation mode. During Tribal Council (where contestants of Survivor are voted out of the show each week), in order to save himself, Varner used the knowledge that Smith is transgender as a weapon: “There is deception here, Jeff. Deception on levels that these guys don’t even understand. There’s more.” Varner then turned to Smith and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
In the aftermath of this episode, GLAAD issued a statement: “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.” Smith penned an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter that addressed his feelings toward Varner and the stereotype he used. “While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me,” he wrote, “I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform.” Which, ultimately, is the issue here. Yeah, outing trans people is a shit thing to do, and it can endanger their lives — particularly in a country where trans women of color face disproportionate violence. At least seven have been murdered in 2017 already. But what’s worse is that Varner, and ultimately the producers of Survivor, never saw fit to address Varner’s hurtful ideology.
During the show, Varner claimed that he thought Smith was “out, loud, and proud” about his trans identity. If he truly believed that, he wouldn’t have fixed himself to drop it as a bombshell on network television. And I can understand the inclination to want to take Varner’s apology at face value, but he straight up kept mentioning the word “deception” in regard to Smith’s trans identity as if he were exposing a faked pregnancy at a wedding on Days of Our Lives. There’s a phrase for this phenomenon, and it’s called “trans panic.” It’s the idea that simply by being transgender and by identifying or expressing one’s gender as different than the sex one was assigned at birth, transgender people are duplicitous. It’s been used as reasoning for violence against trans women, as if their modus operandi is tricking heterosexual men into sleeping with them. It’s been used to explain why men like to dress up as women and murder people in films like 1980’s Dressed to Kill. It’s been used as a shocking plot twist in films like The Crying Game and purportedly LGBTQ-friendly television series like Pretty Little Liars. Even cult classics like the 1991 Sally Field satire Soapdish — which ends by shaming transgender actress Montana Moorehead as once being “Milton Moorehead” — have relied on it.
Last night’s episode is a reminder that trans characters on television are rarely allowed to be human beings. In the mind of screenwriters, constantly looking for ways to shock their audience, it’s far too easy to fall back on the “surprise, this character is transgender!” trope. The case of how to treat transgender individuals as real characters and not plot devices might seem easy enough to solve, but we also still whitewash Asian source material in Hollywood films and routinely employ black characters in secondary roles to teach nice white people lessons, so maybe it’s not any wonder that Hollywood still relies on the hackneyed transgender twist to generate story.
What’s most disappointing is that Survivor fell into the same trap itself. Varner is of course admonished for his behavior, but it ultimately becomes a teaching moment for the rest of Smith’s tribe. At his expense, we get tearful insults lobbed at Varner, and one contestant, Sarah Lacina, expounds on how she comes from a conservative background and how being able to love Smith as a human being while learning he’s transgender is immense growth for her. I’m sure it is, but honestly, who gives a damn? If CBS really wanted to treat its conservative audience to a teaching moment, then breaking the fourth wall and discussing the vileness of the stereotype Varner used in an attempt to keep himself in a game show might have been worth considering. Instead, the show got to have its cake and eat it too — a shocking outing of a transgender man and also some tears and a lesson that feels like it came from an unaired episode of Growing Pains. But Survivor never actually addressed the fact that it isn’t deceptive to be transgender, and by putting Varner’s words on air and not actively repudiating them, the episode itself is as dangerous and reckless as he is.
So why air it at all? Smith’s op-ed opens with the sentence, “I’m not wild about you knowing that I’m trans.” Was the airing of the Tribal Council absolutely necessary? Smith has confirmed that producers knew he was trans and that it could come out a myriad of ways — but I’m sure this was the last way he expected it to happen. He was blindsided, and then the show attempted to pat itself on the back for “joining the conversation” like it was Kendall Jenner armed with a cooler of Pepsi. Big Brother, also on CBS, is a live reality show that manages to edit things it doesn’t want out of its narrative. And after all, The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett is the executive producer and creator of Survivor. If he could keep damning tapes that would expose our current president as a misogynistic racist under wraps for well over a decade, then certainly he could prevent the outing of a transgender man. But I guess Burnett finds it more important to protect rich white men than put an end to the narrative that as a trans person, simply being yourself is an act of treachery.
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