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I’m not going to be writing about the reward challenge today. Or the immunity challenge, for that matter. There won’t be a lot of strategy analysis. Or humor. No mentions of Survivor Sally (unless you count that one) or Milwaukee’s Best or some random Yahoo Serious movie that came out in the 1980s. If that’s what you came for this week and now want to bail, that’s totally cool. I get it. It’ll all be back next time.
I’m only going to be writing about one thing today, and that is what happened at Tribal Council when Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender on national television. That’s pretty much it. Because I think that really is the only thing to write or talk about in terms of this episode. But even though it is just one thing, there are many angles to explore in what transpired here.
There are a bunch of places I could start, but let me begin right here. That was disgusting. I was mortified by what I saw happen on my TV screen. I was embarrassed for Jeff Varner and what he did by sharing a secret that was not his to share. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this may have been the singular lowest point for any contestant in the history of the show (although Colton had some terrible moments, and some of the racist-sounding stuff that came out of Ben Browning’s mouth in Samoa was pretty awful).
I could go on and on about why what Jeff Varner did was so invasive and cruel and hateful and hurtful and unconscionable, but do I really need to? I mean, is that actually necessary? And if I’m saying that, then that really demonstrates how out of bounds it was for Jeff to do what he did. Allow me to explain.
I am the ultimate separation-between-game-and-real-life guy you will meet. Not only did I have no problem with Jonny Fairplay lying about his dead grandma back in Pearl Islands, I thought it was genius! Likewise, I had zero problems with Dawn voting out Brenda in Caramoan after Brenda found her teeth and brought her on the loved ones reward, which were two deeply personal moments. I had no problem with it because the game is still the game. (I believe what Dawn did was wrong for strategic reasons, not personal ones.) And I’ve always believed that pretty much anything that happens in said game is fair game.
When people get mad at someone (like at Dawn) for claiming to be holier than thou, or religious, or a good person out of the game and then lying and deceiving in it, I cant help but roll my eyes. How you act outside of the game and inside of it can be — and probably should be — mutually exclusive. This is my way of saying that I will excuse pretty much anything boundary-crossing that happens in Survivor as long as it is done with some strategic endgame in mind. But allow me to quote the wise philosopher Meat Loaf when I say, “But I won’t do that.”
Varner took one of the deepest, most personal and private things imaginable and aired it in front of the entire country. And for what? After being verbally attacked by his tribe for his actions, Jeff said he did it “to show the deception… It reveals the ability to deceive.” That is probably the worst answer imaginable he could have given. To insinuate that someone is a deceitful person because he did not tell people he had only known for two weeks that he is transgender is downright offensive. I actually think that is the most repulsive thing Varner said all night. It calls to mind the worst kind of hateful negativity directed at LGBT people — that they can’t be trusted around other people, or children, or whatever other insidious example you want to make to excuse away ignorance or fear of anything that does not conform to a standard heterosexual script. I am not going to even get into the question of whether Jeff Varner’s own sexuality makes this attack any better or worse. The statement stands as atrocious on its own, no matter whom it comes from.
Varner tried to walk it back soon after. “I’m not saying, Jeff, that transgender people are deceptive,” he told Probst, to which the host deftly replied: “You’re saying that by not revealing it, he’s capable of deception. That’s a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?”
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What was also disturbing was how Varner’s immediate reaction appeared to be almost as much about protecting himself and his own image as making up for what he had done to Zeke. “I don’t want the perception to be that I’m this evil, hateful person,” he said at one point. Later, he kept interrupting Sarah, who has not having any sort of happy Kumbaya resolution to the situation, and when she asked him to stop interrupting, his response was, “I don’t want you to paint me as something I’m not.”
That was another bad look for Jeff. Yes, he was apologizing. Yes, he said he was devastated. But there were several small qualifiers he kept bringing up along the way. “I assume everyone in his world knew,” he said at another point. “So that’s my ignorance. I thought he was just deceiving these people. It never dawned on me that no one knew.” This is not the type of thing you make assumptions about. And even equating coming out with deception is wildly irresponsible and an affront to anyone who has ever struggled with that decision.
Here’s the bottom line as far as I’m concerned. Not only was this taking something that was completely out of bounds and putting it into the field of play, but what was the point? Varner said his back was up against the wall and he was grasping at anything he could use to stay in the game. But did he really think so low of his tribemates that they would stoop to being offended by that? Unless they were bigots and completely intolerant, this revelation served zero strategic value.