Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“If I can take this cloud that’s over me right now and sling it over somebody else, I’m gonna do it.” — Jeff Varner, The Australian Outback and Cambodia
Tonight on Survivor, Jeff Varner publicly outed Zeke Smith as trans. This wasn’t a game secret Zeke was keeping from a group of players. It was a private personal fact. Varner outed Zeke on CBS prime time, not just to the contestants in Fiji, but to millions of viewers back home, as well as the people in Zeke’s life who did not know.
Zeke handled himself with more poise and grace than I would think possible. I can do little more in this blog than let him speak for himself.
“I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player. … If metamorphosis is the word of the episode, I feel like I’ve seen such a metamorphosis of myself. … I don’t know that the scared kid who hit the mat in the marooning in 33 would be as calm as I am right now. But I’ve started two fires with just bamboo, I’ve won challenges, I’ve been part of blindsides, I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff, and I am a changed, stronger better man today.”
“Maybe there’s someone who’s a Survivor fan, and me being out on the show helps someone else, and so maybe this will lead to a greater good.”
I’m not giving out a “Fishy Award” this blog. It feels trite to dispense a fictional strategy award for this real-life moment. But I am eternally in awe of the composure, self-confidence, and open-heartedness that Zeke displayed. By the end of the episode, he was the one comforting Varner.
If you want to read more from Zeke, PEOPLE has an interview here.
I was particularly moved by how quickly and unequivocally the tribe turned on Varner. Normally, Survivor contestants see even the most intense personal moments as another facet of the game. Think of Worlds Apart, where the contestants watched Will berate Shirin, not wanting to step in lest the attention shift to them.
The players here didn’t hesitate.
Debbie is the first to speak. “That’s personal,” she says. She is quickly joined by a teary Andrea and an outraged Tai. “Nobody has the right to out anybody,” Tai insists, and there is something furious in his usually mild voice.
One of the most powerful moments comes from Sarah, who uses her new understanding of Zeke to push herself past her own biases. “I come from a very conservative background,” she says. “It’s not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender and things. So I’m not exposed to it as much as most of these people are. The fact that I can love this guy so much, and it doesn’t change anything for me, makes me realize that I’ve grown huge as a person.”
It’s moving to watch Sarah feel her way through her own feelings, without having the perfect language to even express what she is trying to say. Survivor forces people who would never normally meet into close contact. Sometimes the result can be a genuine evolution.
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Probst, for his part, handles Tribal Council perfectly. The first and most impressive thing that he does is nothing at all. He gets out of the way and lets the players react to the moment for themselves. I can just imagine another reality host smothering the moment in commentary. Only after Varner starts talking in circles does Probst step in as audience surrogate: challenging Varner on his logic, turning to Tai for his thoughts, and encouraging Zeke to respond.
I thought Probst did a particularly fantastic job of toeing the line between his own human reaction and his role as the show’s host. “In a way, you’re saying there is no line,” he says to Varner, “If I’m desperate enough, I will do or say anything.” He lets Varner speak for himself, while also expressing the shock that every one of us at home was feeling.
Indeed, Probst expands the moment in a way I’m not sure we’ve ever seen before. “What do you think the LGBT community’s reaction will be to this?” he asks Varner. And then later: “Is it starting to hit you, the gravity, that you didn’t just tell six people? You told millions of people.” Probst breaks the fourth wall to remind Varner and all of us that this isn’t just the stakes of a game. This is a show watched by millions.
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Of course, these are all things that Varner should know. Varner isn’t some reality television neophyte. This is his third time on Survivor. Even more relevantly, he’s played Survivor in the social media age. After Cambodia, he has to realize that the Internet will scrutinize every word he says.
The biggest question of the episode, and one I’m still struggling to understand, is what Varner thought would happen. Eighteen days of starvation, sleeplessness, and paranoia make you crazy — but I don’t see how they make you that crazy. Varner’s decision was both strategically and personally self-destructive. What did he imagine the tribe’s response would be? “You’re right, Zeke didn’t disclose his gender history, so let’s vote out … Ozzy?” (Ozzy, let’s remember, was Varner’s target). You’d have to be a mental pole vaulter to make that leap in logic.
Art by: Erik Reichenbach
Also consider the fact that Varner chose to out Zeke at Tribal Council, rather than try to stir up suspicion and paranoia at camp. I’m not suggesting there was a correct way for Varner to out Zeke, but Varner chose the worst way. For one thing, votes rarely change at Tribal. But more importantly, Tribal Council is the show’s most theatrical moment. Every contestant is mic’d. Every camera is pointed in their direction. Every producer is leaning in. No matter what else happens in an episode, Tribal Council is going to be included. What I’m saying is — there’s no way for the producers to edit around this moment, even if they tried. Varner picked a time to out Zeke when it was least likely to have a game impact and most likely to air on television.
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Varner himself can barely explain his motivation. “What was your goal in doing that?” Andrea asks. “To show the deception,” he says. And then later: “I feel horrible about it. I’m just trying everything that I can.” These are vague, nonspecific statements.
A conflicted character makes a terrible decision in a moment of extremity – that’s great storytelling. But this was real people’s lives, not just a story. A torch was snuffed and an episode ended, but there are real consequences for the contestants that extend far beyond the TV screen.
Varner realizes he has done something terrible and irrevocable, and even at Tribal Council he begins to feel real grief and shame. I can only imagine how much he has been beating himself up over the past eight months, waiting for this to air and his actions to be made public.
I’m sure there will be a pile-on on social media, because that seems to be what social media is all about these days. Still, I’d love to encourage everybody reading this to channel their anger at Varner into love for Zeke, and maybe an opportunity to educate all of ourselves about the challenges facing transgender people everywhere.
Perhaps we can all follow Tai’s response at Tribal Council: outrage at the action, but sympathy for the man.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS. To get Survivor contestant — and PEOPLE Now host — Andrea Boehlke’s take, tune in to her PEN Fan Forum: Survivor show immediately after the reality show airs.