Beating out the likes of other popular TV shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Survivor: Game Changers took the crown in the 29th GLAAD Media Awards: Outstanding Reality Program category. GLAAD president Sarah Ellis praised the show for its “thoughtful and responsible handling” of the moment when contestant Zeke Smith was outed as a transgender man.
But did CBS really handle Smith’s outing well? In an initial glance, it may seem as though Survivor did a good job in conveying the message that outing someone is wrong by having the host berate the wrongdoer, Jeff Varner, for outing Smith to his fellow contestants. However, Survivor actually replicated Varner’s actions by allowing Smith's outing to air.
You may ask, How did Survivor out Smith when he gave the show permission to air his outing by saying that he wanted the world to “see how much [he has] grown”? Didn’t he also say that he thought others could benefit from the airing of his outing? While Smith did say those things, Smith never once said that he wanted the world to know that he is a transgender man. In fact, moments after his outing, he said that he didn’t want to be known as “the trans Survivor player,” he wanted to be known as “Zeke the Survivor player.”
If Smith didn’t want the world to know that he's a transgender man, why didn’t he just tell the press that he didn’t want his outing to air? Smith probably had already accepted the fact that his outing was going to be aired regardless. Survivor contestants are required to sign a contract before participating in the show that acknowledges the producers have “unlimited right” to "edit and otherwise exploit” any footage. Despite having prerogative over Smith’s outing footage, the show could have chosen not to air it.
However, there was no doubt that the show wanted to air Smith’s outing all along. Shortly after Varner outed Smith, the show’s host and executive producer, Jeff Probst, immediately chastised Varner for not just telling “six people” but also “millions of people” right at that moment during the taped tribal council. If Probst had no intention of airing the footage, why did he claim that Varner had told “millions of people” when in fact Varner had only outed Smith to his fellow contestants at that point?
What’s more, Probst decided not to hold a formal elimination vote at tribal council, for once. Many have cited the lack of a formal vote as the reason it was “impossible” to have edited Smith’s outing out. Is that really the case, though? Even if editing out Smith’s outing may have caused an illogical flow in the show’s storyline, it still beats outing Smith. Even if fans may ponder what truly happened in the episode, it puts Smith in a situation where he can truthfully decide for himself whether he wants to reveal that he is a transgender man, instead of having no control over his outing. Isn’t that what a trans ally would do? So much for Probst’s statement about how he couldn’t imagine “what was done to Zeke was OK […] under any circumstances.”
Does this suggest that Probst values the potential flow of an episode more than a transgender person’s life? Probst then went on to attempt justifying the airing of Smith’s outing by saying that Smith “led” him. Imagine this scenario: Your boss happens to know that you’re transgender. How would you feel if he or she asked you to "lead" him or her into telling everyone that you are transgender, when you don't even be want to be known as transgender in the first place?
GLAAD was wrong for nominating, let alone handing the win to Survivor: Game Changers for Outstanding Reality Program. While Survivor did a good job in giving Smith the “unprecedented autonomy” over how his outing story was going to unfold, the show did not give him “unprecedented autonomy” in deciding whether he wanted the world to know that he's transgender in the first place.
TIM CHUA is a student at Columbia University in New York City.