That was the worst thing anybody has ever done in Survivor.
And let’s not forget there have been some doozies over 34 seasons (lookin’ at you Johnny Fairplay and your ‘dead grandma’).
But these words by Jeff Varner, desperate to avoid being voted out, are reprehensible:
“There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand,” he said.
Turning to fellow castmate he said, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
As the shock sunk in, he attempted to justify his actions.
“What I’m showing is deception.”
And with that the tribe imploded, unleashing anger at Varner. Even Jeff Probst was appalled at his actions.
“It reveals the ability to deceive,” he desperately offered.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, at what you will do to try and win a million dollars. You’re playing with peoples’ lives,” Ozzy told him, saying what everybody was thinking.
Jeff Varner, who is openly gay himself, should never have outed anybody and should never have linked gender identity to ‘deception.’ And here we were thinking the most hated person in America this week was the CEO of United Airlines.
But the show will also come under fire. Although it showed support for Zeke in an extreme situation, Survivor may have kept vision of a discussion between Varner and Zeke on the cutting room floor. If they did this to respect Zeke’s privacy it’s understandable, but if they did it to create a bombshell moment then they are almost as guilty as Varner. Identity and orientation should never be a Reality TV twist (in the past we’ve seen entire shows do this).
Following the episode airing, Jeff Varner has attempted to apologise:
Zeke has also written a column in the Hollywood Reporter. Here is an excerpt:
I knew that Varner’s actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. His terrible utterances were not an effect of my actions, but a reflection of his own personal maladies.
But 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. 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.
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. Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is.
I looked to Varner, now the one hunched and quivering, and contemplated the backlash he would face. When he said what he said, he changed both of our lives forever. When he pulled me in for a hug, I felt compelled to reciprocate, both as a sign that I was willing to forgive him and that the shots he had fired missed.
But, if we’re being perfectly honest with one another, I’ve struggled with that forgiveness in the months following. I can’t foresee us sipping martinis together in Fire Island. While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform.
But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.