Varner outs Zeke: the outrage is reaffirming

A gay man’s assault on a transgender fellow player was stunning. The response by the tribe, the host, the audience, and most importantly the target, gives a little hope to those of us losing faith in our fellow humans.

On last night’s episode of Survivor, Jeff Varner, who was fighting for his life in the game, turned to fellow contestant Zeke Smith during tribal council and asked him, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” It was like someone had dropped a bomb on the place. Ten seconds of staggered silence gave way to a deluge of outrage against Varner, with members of the tribe shouting over each other in a moment unlike anything in Survivor history. It was a beatdown of unprecedented proportions and it was richly deserved. A Google search for [zeke smith jeff varner] is currently returning ~82,000 results – stories, tweets, videos, you name it, so feel free to sample for yourself the public response.

Up until that instant we’d probably say Varner, in his third Survivor game, had been a relatively popular player, but in that split-second he became the most despised villain in the show’s 34 seasons. During Survivor’s run I’ve missed a grand total of two episodes (back before we had DVR and On-Demand there were a couple nights I forgot to set the VCR). Last night was, without any question, the worst thing that has ever been done on the show, which after the likes of Jonny Fairplay and the hatefuckery of the inbred Hantz clan, plus a few other assorted racists and misogynist assholes, is saying something.

That Varner is gay would, you’d think, encourage a measure of sensitivity toward such a volatile issue, especially in a world where trangendered people are targeted by both knuckledragging thugs and drooling legislators (ironically, Varner hails from North Carolina, home of the “bathroom law”). Gay and transgender aren’t the same thing, of course, and you’d be naïve to assume that “they” are all on the same side. I suspect there is a world of nuance here that I know nothing about (although I’d welcome insight from any commenters who are better informed than me). Still, that the assault – Varner’s own word – came from one of the people in the tribe in a position to really understand what persecution of the LGBT community is all about … it’s hard for me to really grasp, even after having a day to think about it.

Zeke has shown tremendous courage and grace in the aftermath of this attack, and it took Varner about a minute to begin realizing the magnitude of his fuck-up, which will surely haunt him every day for the rest of his life. No matter what else he manages to accomplish, this is what he will be remembered for.

I hope that the unfortunate outing of Zeke Smith ultimately leads to some good. Smith would certainly be a compelling figure for any campaign aimed at combatting ignorant, hateful anti-trans stereotypes. And the unified backlash against Varner by the tribe – not much reaffirms my faith in humanity these days, but that did. Every single one of them deserves credit for making clear that this was not okay, and that chalking it up to trying to win a game was not an excuse.

If Zeke can even consider forgiving Varner he’s a better man than I am.

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