On Wednesday night, the legendary television show “Survivor” aired its 507th episode, and it was perhaps its most important and the one that disgusted me the most as a gay person and longtime viewer.
This season, “Survivor: Game Changers” features 20 former players returning for that coveted $1 million. One of the contestants on the season is Brad Culpepper, a nine-year NFL veteran. But this episode’s main conflict revolved around contestants Zeke Smith and Jeff Varner.
Both Smith and Varner lost the immunity challenge and went to tribal council and Varner feared he was one of the people likely to go. Varner, a gay man from North Carolina, then outed Smith as a transgender man. Smith did not disclose his transition to any other contestants on the show and it caught the whole tribe off-guard.
“There is a deception going on here and you guys are the victims,” Varner told his fellow cast members.” Then turning to Smith, he said: “Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender? [long pause] What I'm showing is a deception."
Smith looked shocked. The cast members were stunned and turned on Varner.
“But that's personal.”
“It has nothing to do with the game.”
“You didn't have to do that.”
“That is so wrong.”
Tai Trang, a gay man from San Francisco, was among the tribemates tearing up with the news.
“It is never right to out anyone,” Trang said.
Varner tried to defend himself, saying he wasn’t outing anyone, which was an absurd claim.
“I'm not using that as anything negative. ... I argue for the rights of transgender people every day in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “[Here] I'm arguing for my life, I got to throw everything against the wall.”
Tribe member Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth tore into Varner, saying, “You should be ashamed of yourself ... for what you’re willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars. You’re playing with peoples’ lives at this point.”
Varner apologized and tried to explain himself, but it did not change what he had done. Coming out should be done on the own person’s terms. Smith was visibly shaken by the news, but kept his composure.
“I’m certainly not anyone who should be a role model for anybody else,” Smith said. “But, maybe there’s someone who is a ‘Survivor’ fan and me being out on the show helps him or helps her or helps someone else and so maybe this will lead to a greater good.”
This episode of “Survivor” was beyond the TV show, beyond the game, beyond the sport. It taught us that we as a community need to be there to support our transgender brothers and sisters.
We need to recognize what happened and use it as a learning experience for the future. Letting people come out on their own accord is important, and that is what “Survivor” taught the world last night.
By the way, Varner was kicked off the show without even a vote.
Jeremy Brener is a student at the University of Central Florida. “Survivor” is his favorite TV show. He also writes a weekly NFL column for Outsports. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and followed on Twitter.