OPINION: Outing of “Survivor” contestant draws attention to need for understanding

India Kirssin | Managing Editor

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. But do not out someone on national television.

On the April 12 episode of “Survivor,” a contestant was publicly outed as transgender. He did not choose to reveal this information himself, but was instead outed by his tribe mate in one of the most brutal moments I have ever had to watch.

For those of you who do not watch “Survivor,” here’s a quick run-down. There are usually two or three tribes that face off against each other in challenges. The tribes consist of “castaways” who live on uninhabited islands and try to survive for 39 days to win one million dollars. When a tribe loses a challenge they go to tribal council, where one member of their group is voted off of the show.

During this particular tribal council, Jeff Varner knew he was going to go home. The rest of his alliance had been voted off and his tribe mates did not need him around anymore. Because of this, Varner became desperate. In an attempt to save himself, he turned to Zeke Smith, his one friend on the tribe, and asked: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

The reaction was instantaneous. Zeke stared blankly ahead, momentarily powerless. His other teammates gasped, shook their heads and openly cried. Varner tried to defend himself by saying his goal was to “show the deception” Zeke is capable of in the game.

Let’s try to follow Varner’s logic. A transgender person is deceptive because they do not reveal their private gender history that is nobody else’s business. Okay, so I am deceptive when I do not reveal all of my secrets to you, and you are deceptive if you do not tell me all of your secrets. Frankly, my secrets are not your problem, and yours are not mine. Normal people do not use that trail of logic. No one should think like that.

Zeke had not told anyone else. And Varner used that trust to out him, not only to the other six members of the tribe, but to millions of people who tune into “Survivor” each week. The tribe’s reaction mimicked the vast majority of the country’s feelings on the episode. No matter what you believe, agree with or disagree with, no one should do what Varner did to Zeke. It crossed a line that cannot be erased. It was despicable.

It was also powerful. Immediately Zeke’s other tribe mates rallied behind him, railing Varner for bringing real life into the game. Most of them had not known Zeke for more than two weeks, and none of them knew about his past, but they stood up for the person they had come to love.

The word of the episode was ‘metamorphosis’ and it could not have been more appropriate. People go onto “Survivor” to challenge themselves and win one million dollars. They come from very different walks of life and we get to see them change and grow into new friendships, new confidence and new people as the show goes on. Zeke may have had a metamorphosis we did not know about, but we have also seen his “Survivor” metamorphosis as he changed from “Survivor” nerd to one of the fiercest strategic players on the show. In the process we have fallen in love with him as “Zeke the Survivor player” not “the trans Survivor player.”

Zeke Smith is who we should all strive to be. He does not think he should be a role model just because he is transgender and I agree. He should be a role model because he radiates love and acceptance. While the episode made us witness to humankind in its worst form, as the selfish perpetrator, it also started an important dialogue about the perception of the transgender community and the basic way we should treat one another.

Zeke put it best: “We cannot control the hazards we face, we can only control how we respond. Love each other.”