When someone signs up to be on a reality TV show, there's an assumption that the participants consent to revealing personal aspects of their lives to the world. But on Wednesday night's episode of Survivor, Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by another Survivor contestant, Jeff Varner, in a bizarre power play that crossed so many lines — even for reality TV.
"There is deception here," Varner said to the host, Jeff Probst. "Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don't even understand." Then he asked Smith, "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?" Smith was out as a gay man, but he hadn't told anyone that he's transgender.
On the show, Smith appeared stoic as several cast members came to his defense. Some were crying and and screaming that Varner had no right to out him. The clip is uncomfortable and potentially triggering, and many people were echoing the frustrations of the contestants on Twitter. "Something primal deep inside me screamed: run," Smith wrote describing the moment in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter. "I lost control of my body, my legs bounced up and down uncontrollably, willing me to flee, but the rest of me sat dead as stone." On the show, as Varner apologized, Probst sternly said, "You can't un-ring the bell."
But in order to understand why Varner's actions were problematic, it's important to first establish what outing means. There are degrees of outing someone, but in general, it involves "exposing someone’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity to others without their permission," according to the Human Rights Campaign glossary.
Besides the humiliation someone can experience when they don't have control of their own narrative, outing a person can have serious repercussions. "Outing someone non-consensually could put them at risk of violence, and is a form of violence itself," says Eli Erlick, director of Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER). Trans people deserve the opportunity to control their personal information to protect themselves. "A person's gender history is private information, and it is up to them, and only them, when, how, and to whom they choose to disclose that information," Smith wrote. "The only people who need to know [about your gender history] are medical professionals and naked fun time friends."
Also, there's an important difference between outing someone as LGBQ and outing someone as transgender — both are unacceptable, of course, but trans people often have specific motivations for keeping their gender history private. "After a transgender person has transitioned, they may be less likely to want to tell others about their trans identity," says Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program. "For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, coming out is an empowering experience because they are able to be their authentic selves." But, when a trans person has transitioned, they're finally living their truth as their authentic self, and there isn't always a need to tell people. "Unfortunately, it can often feel disempowering for a transgender person to disclose to other people that they are transgender," reads GLAAD's tips for allies.
"Coming out about one's gender identity is a lot less understood and a lot more stigmatized," Erlick says. "As trans people, assumptions are made about our bodies that aren't [made] about cisgender, non-straight people, and we're at a higher risk of violence."
Some people need to not be out for their safety, others because they just don't want to — both reasons are valid.
While many people are open about their gender identity as part of their work to raise awareness, not every transgender person has to speak out about their trans experiences. "Often, we call trans people who aren't out in their everyday lives 'stealth,' although some trans people argue that this term glorifies passing as cisgender and not taking part in community actions," Erlick says. "Some people need to not be out for their safety, others because they just don't want to — both reasons are valid."
When you look at the numbers, trans people face a particularly high risk of violence, and 95% of the trans people killed in 2016 were people of color and 85% were women, according to the Human Rights Campaign. "In 31 states, there are no explicit laws protecting LGBTQ people from being fired from a job, denied housing, or denied service in a place of public accommodation," Adams says. "Transgender people are especially vulnerable and experience extraordinarily high levels of poverty, discrimination, and violence."
As for Varner, there are a lot of troubling layers to what he did: outing a person, insinuating that a trans person who isn't out is intentionally being misleading, and doing it on national television. "In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder," Smith wrote. "Varner is saying that I'm not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick."
The one silver lining is that the show wasn't broadcast live, so the producers at CBS had time to work with GLAAD to ensure that Smith had a chance to respond in a safe way before the show aired. But even the most public figures deserve the chance to control how and when they share information about their gender identity and sexual orientation, and allies have a responsibility to respect that. Smith wrote about how he reckoned with what Varner did to him, and whether or not he forgives him: "Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others."
If someone tells you that they're transgender, the best thing to do is ask them how they would like to be supported, Erlick says. "Some people need others to advocate for them, and sometimes we want to advocate for ourselves," she says. Also, it's best not to probe or ask them personal questions about their life or medical procedures they may have had or plan to have, Adams says. And of course, keep your conversation between the two of you, unless the person specifically instructs you otherwise. Accidents happen, and if you let information about someone's sexual orientation or gender identity slip, you should be upfront with the people you told and the person who you outed. "Ask them to not share this information and explain how it puts the trans person at risk," Erlick says.
There's no right or wrong way to be trans, and the same can be said for coming out (as long as it's on your own terms). It's traumatic and unfortunate that Smith had this play out on national TV, but like he said: With education, there's hope.
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