What would you do for a million dollars? For viewers of the reality television show Survivor, the easy answer is, “just about anything.” It’s all a game, after all. One contestant once justified her backstabbing game by saying that “people kill for less than what we’re playing for.” While that’s true, the recently concluded 34th season showed that even within a game for a million dollars, there is still a boundary, and some actions are completely inexcusable.
Jeff Varner was in a tight spot. It was an all-returning players season, and Varner was on his third try (he played back in 2001, and again in 2015). He’d never reached the jury, the midpoint in the game after which eliminated contestants remain to select the winner. He was never a great player, but he was a good talker with a lot of energy, and my personal favourite on his previous two seasons, in part because he was the only player in the show’s history who shared my name and didn’t seem like a jerk.
That is, until April 12. Just one episode away from reaching the jury, Varner was poised to be the next person voted out of the game. So, he decided to do quite possibly the most despicable thing in Survivor history, and certainly the most egregious to ever be disguised as a “move” in the game. Varner announced in front of his whole tribe that “there is deception here, deception on levels that these guys don’t even understand,” before turning to fellow contestant Zeke Smith and asking, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
Smith, who had played for the first time in the previous season, froze. Not only had he opted to keep his gender history private from his tribe, but he had made the decision not to tell the audience either, explaining that he wanted be recognized for his merits as a Survivor player, not as the show’s first trans contestant. In a Hollywood Reporter article published the night of that episode (the season was filmed last summer), Smith explained that “Many gay people consider coming out a moment of liberation, because sharing their sexual orientation with the world causes them to be seen more authentically. Often, the opposite is true for trans people. When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically — doubting, probing, or denying our identities.”
Outing Smith as trans could have massive repercussions beyond the game, as it removes his ability to control whom he feels safe sharing that information with. In his article, Smith said, “As someone who is not readily perceived to be trans, I possess a great deal of privilege, both because I can control — well, used to control — who knows my gender history, and also because I don’t experience the same type of discrimination, or even violence, that more visible trans people face — especially trans women of colour.” However, with that control gone, Varner has opened Smith up to hate and violence from bigoted individuals or groups, including the potential to be fired in 28 states purely because of his history, all while forcing him into an unwanted position of being one of the better known trans figures in popular culture.
So if this all aired on April 12, why am I just writing about it now? Because at the time, I decided to let it lie. What Varner did was horrible, but in his interviews in the aftermath, he seemed genuinely apologetic, like he understood the error in his ways. He stewed in it for the 10 months since filming, lost his job, received a lot of hate, and had to deal with international coverage of his terrible decision. I didn’t excuse what he did by any means, but I didn’t think there needed to be one more article out there reiterating the issues. But on May 24, the season of Survivor ended, and as it always does, wrapped up with a live reunion show. And of course, the biggest story of the season couldn’t be avoided. Smith spoke eloquently about the outing, the reaction, and being trans in general.
Then it was Varner’s turn to speak, and he quickly started to spoil any goodwill he had left. He talked almost exclusively about himself, and how hard the backlash had been — even badmouthing his former employer — with little acknowledgement of the damage his actions had on Smith’s life. The show moved on to other topics, but then, as the reunion wrapped up, Varner got one last word in. And he used it to promote the fact that he’d written a book about dealing with his shame. He didn’t say he was going to donate any or all of the profits to a relevant charity, he didn’t say he did anything wrong. He didn’t use the platform given to him to apologize to the man whose life he’d irrevocably changed. He used it to try to make a profit. It looks like all of his apologizing and acting like he understood the error in his ways was just PR.
Survivor is no stranger to controversy, backstabbing, and broken promises, but Varner’s actions go far beyond an in-game betrayal to one that has serious and lasting repercussions in people’s lives. Smith has handled the events amazingly, and thankfully does not appear to have had his life ruined by them, but said, “While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform.”
Oh, and if you were curious, Varner’s actions didn’t even help him in the game like he’d hoped. He was eliminated immediately, and holds the distinction of being the only person to play Survivor three times without ever reaching the jury.