“Survivor”: Why Would a Gay Man Out His Transgender Friend on National Television?


APRIL 13, 2017

Photo: People

It was a week of unexpectedly appalling language and behavior.

If you are a fan of cable news, it’s been a rough week.  To see President Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer stand before the White House press corps and argue that Adolf Hitler never stooped to using chemical weapons (?!?!?!) and refer to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust Centers” (“Hi and welcome to the Holocaust Center”) was staggering in its insensitivity.

Following that was the horrific video of a 69 year-old United Airlines passenger, chosen at random by the airline to give up his seat so that a United employee could fly, being forcibly pulled from his seat and dragged down the aisle of the plane, resulting in a concussion and broken teeth to the unlucky doctor, who had refused to give up his seat so that he could tend to his patients the next morning.

Worse still was the response to the incident by United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz, who at first patted his employees on the back for following “proper procedure” without a word of apology to the victim (and giving new meaning to the word “re-accommodate”).  When the public outcry got louder and the United stock price began to fall, Muñoz tried a new tack, this time blaming the victim, implying that it was the doctor’s own fault.  Muñoz finally made a passable apology on this third try, but by this time, United’s image was in tatters, and Muñoz became a nationwide punch line.

So you couldn’t be faulted if you wanted to retreat to mindless pleasures where no one does anything horrible to another human being.  How about Wednesday night’s edition of my favorite competition show, “Survivor”?

This season (the series’ 34th), “Survivor” brought back 20 players who made moves during their prior appearances that changed the course of the game, so we’re dealing with an A-1 level of player here.  On Wednesday’s episode, the Nuku tribe lost the immunity challenge and had to go to Tribal Council, where one player would be voted out of the game.

By Wednesday, Nuku’s numbers had dropped to eight, and the team’s five women had the numbers, though it was up in the air as to whether they could work together.  By luck of the draw, the remainder of the team happened to be the game’s three gay men — Tai Trang, Jeff Varner (pictured above left) and Zeke Smith (pictured above right).  Because of making certain bad alliances along the way, Varner was almost certain to be voted out that night.  So at Tribal, Varner, in order to save himself, tried to sow discontent among the women, arguing that there was deception going on within the tribe.

When pressed for an example, Varner to his gay friend Zeke and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”  Jaws dropped around the campfire, and based on the extensive news coverage on Thursday, jaws also dropped around the world.

When his tribemates immediately turned on him for doing such a despicable act (Zeke is out and proud as a gay man but was not yet ready to come out as a transgender man), Varner furiously sought to backpeddle, as Spicer and Muñoz tried to do earlier in the week, with the same pathetic result. (So disgusted were they by Varner’s behavior, the Nuku tribe did not even bother to take a secret vote, and Varner’s ass was sent packing.)

How a gay man could out his trans friend in front of tens of millions of viewers is something I’ve been having trouble understanding.  Yes, it’s a game with a million-dollar prize, but is your soul worth that?  When Zeke finally spoke at Tribal, he was calm and composed with no bitterness toward Varner as he explained he did not bring his status up in the two seasons in which he played because he didn’t want to be thought of as the “trans ‘Survivor’ player” but simply as “Zeke, the “Survivor” player.”  We should all display that kind of grace under fire.

Despite the horrible behavior displayed in the world’s view every day this week, I’m still in the “people are fundamentally good” school and I think the contrition displayed in the press by Sean Spicer and Jeff Varner was sincere (the jury’s still out on Oscar Muñoz and United Airlines).

But please, let’s not have another week like this for a long time.