When we fail ourselves, and each other: A Lesson for the LGB community

Note and SPOILER ALERT: This Post has copious spoilers of the current season of Survivor: Game Changers, if you want to avoid knowing what happened last night, do not read further.

I also get on a soap box.

Frankly, we can be shitty allies.

It is interesting how a reality show can sometimes break through and expose stark realities about your community, and yourself, and each other. Sure, most of reality is tightly edited to service a story line or a theme. Occasionally, like tonight on Survivor, there is an unexpected break which causes the contestants to snap out of game mode.

Tonight was one of those moments.

For those who do not follow Survivor, or are asking “Is that show still on?” I will fill you in. Last night, at Tribal Council a Contestant, a Gay Man (Jeff Varner), Outed another Contestant as Trans* (Zeke Smith), in order to turn the vote against Zeke and to save himself. This set off a very emotional Tribal Council which ended with Varner being sent home by a unanimous voice vote.

The move was made as amorally as possible, with a will to plant seed and doubt in the tribe. Varner wanted to rely on negative and terrible stereotypes of not only Zeke and Trans* people, but the entire tribe that they would turn on him.

It backfired spectacularly.

Throughout the course of Tribal Council, every member of the tribe took Varner to task for what he did, and afterwards, he was summarily voted out by a voice vote.

It is hard to put into words my feelings of what happened. Dumbfounded is a word I would use, replaced with anger, confusion, disgust, and sadness.

I have had trouble sitting down to write this (and it is something I feel I must write), because it shines a light on a hard reality of the LGBT family; that we can be shitty allies to each other.

Zeke has responded brilliantly, humorously, and poignantly to the situation in a guest column. He weaves a wonderful story, uses grace, but doesn’t let anyone off the hook for their behavior. I want to make sure I point to Zeke because too often, we allies want to make sure *we* are heard, and tend to silence the people who is being affected in this.

As a Gay Cis man, I personally know the trauma of being outed unwillingly. I know the panic and the fear of that moment, but as Zeke rightly said,

“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.”

– Zeke Smith

It is something that I have no basis of knowledge in. For me, there was a need to tell people, but for Zeke and many others like him, it is a wholly private thing for a few to know, forever. It is not simply finding the right time to come out, but rather, how to (rightly)  keep everyone from knowing your business. Varner did what many gay men would do, “Why are you ashamed?”

And what is so terrible is that I have heard that said to me, when people forcefully outed me, and it is incomprehensible to me that a gay man would do that to anyone else.

This also started racing around the internet, that not being out with his Gender History is being ashamed of being Trans*, again, Zeke meets that head on,

“I’m not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story, I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game.”

– Zeke Smith

We must be better allies. There is so much distrust between the Trans* Community and the LGB community, and in particular, gay cis men. We often employ the same tactics of minimization and placating as straight people had done to us for a long time, and we often do not see it in ourselves. There is a bit of entitlement when we boast that we too are minorities, and that “we understand.” And while we do have a measure of understanding, we do not “understand” and we must strive to better appreciate our Trans* family and let them be the voices that guide their movement, as well as let them decide how they handle coming out, being an advocate, and being visible, and how their movement goes forward. The empathy we demand for ourselves must in turn be given to the Trans* community, and as Zeke had eloquently put,

“It’s one thing to lie about someone sneaking off at night to search for hidden advantages. It is quite another to incense bigotry toward a marginalized minority.”

– Zeke Smith

For the Episode, it has been a huge point of discussion for many people in and out of Survivor Fandom. For me personally, many of my Survivor friends from many years contacted me, to express their shock and to share their feelings. The reactions from the Tribe were hopeful, especially from Sarah, the Cop who had her own emotional breakthrough during Tribal. After finding out that Zeke was Trans* her inner perspective went through whiplash. Her conservative upbringing and area has a view of Trans* people, but she found her feelings for the man unchanged, and… it shook her. You see how careful she is trying to be in the moment, but also, how much she is growing in that moment. For me, that was the shining spot of a Tribal that was so awful at the beginning.

Tai, the other Gay cis  man on the Tribe (and in the game), reacted much like I would have. The outing of a person is terrible, but at the same time, seeing Varner make such a mistake, only to realise halfway through what he did. I too would have comfort him, knowing his terrible choice was going to be exposed to the nation in 10 months time.

And seeing Zeke sit there, shocked. I ached for him.

Jeff Varner has also not been silent through this. He spoke to Entertainment Weekly about his experience and he continually apologised and talked about his mistake and why it was wrong. His reaction of penance seems to be a little too late, but it is something. In every situation there is an opportunity of growth, and through pain, or clarity, Varner is taking this opportunity to grow and be a better ally. He therapy, his outreach afterwards, and such is proof he is trying to change himself, and I wish him the best on that journey. But I will be honest in that my opinion of Jeff has radically changed. He was a favorite, now… not so much.

This will become a moment in Trans History. Regardless of the terribleness of what has happened. The accusation, the reaction of the Tribe, Zeke’s reaction, Varner’s breakdown, and the conclusion shows me that there is hope that hate and bigotry can be overcome, that by trying to isolate and demonize a minority is wrong, and that being who you are, and being authentic with who you are will build bridges to bring people together, not tear them down.

I think Zeke said it best,

“Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is.”

– Zeke Smith

In the end, I hope that good can come out of this. I look to myself and I see where I need to be a better ally. I look to my fellow gay cis men, and I want all of us to be better allies for our Trans* family. I look at society and I see how far we have to go, and know that only together, we can achieve the equality for *everyone* not just for the LGB, not just for women, not just for immigrants, but for everyone.


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