Has it really been almost 16 years? In some ways, it feels like we just met yesterday. I was in my first semester of college and looking for some way to understand people’s cruelty, and you were at the height of your popularity in showing our culture what it is at its barest level. Our connection seemed like fate. I grew up playing soccer in Massachusetts, and you took me on a trip through Africa to trace the victory of professional goalkeeper Ethan Zohn. Despite the brutality of the landscape and manipulations of the other players, he won because he was a genuinely good guy. I was hooked by the combination of truth and hope you offered me.
From the Amazon to Fiji to the Philippines, you took me around the world and taught me about life. In Thailand I learned that being morally good doesn’t always mean you’re deserving and being deserving doesn’t always mean you’re morally good. In Vanuatu I learned that the complexities of gender and sexuality might be best navigated by the street-smart and not the book-learned. In Samoa I learned that some people lack principles and will do whatever it takes to satiate an obsession because what they really lack is a sense of self. These lessons and more helped shape who I am today because every week you showed the delicate tight rope that is human existence–balancing the pursuit of our self interest with our role in the community.
At our heights, you provided me with some of the best entertainment and storytelling of the modern age. Palau is a beautiful demonstration of what happens when the best all end up on the same team. The way collective dominance benevolently transitioned into individual competition (well, except for “Caryn sucks”) was enthralling and inspiring. South Pacific is an exhibition in how to quietly trust your intelligent and let others self destruct around you. Redemption Island is and probably will remain your swan song–an ode to understanding what it takes to win psychologically, philosophically, and physically. Throughout all of your stories, you always maintained a steady focus on framing events within the context of the game. Because of that approach, you never hurt me–until your most recent episode.
Jeff Varner’s exit on Survivor: Game Changers was the most painful in our history as an ill-conceived move brought about a character assassination all so you and your players could virtue signal. After his only ally was voted out, Varner knew there was no way he would survive the next vote. But then Zeke sat with him and assured him of his safety because Zeke liked him…until the tribe actually faced a vote and Zeke’s empathetic ear suddenly turned to cold indifference. If you really want to keep me, Varner asserted, why not vote out Ozzy who is such a huge threat? Zeke’s refusal of Varner’s plan sent Varner into an understandable nosedive. Why promise a player safety until the end of the game, as Zeke did, if you never have any intention of following through with it? Such a promise is reckless as it unnecessarily raises another player’s hopes.
Sitting at Tribal Council knowing he was leaving after being told three days earlier he wouldn’t be, Varner surely felt backed into a corner strategically and emotionally. He also held a piece of information no other player had observed about Zeke and that fans who had were too scared to discuss openly. That silence and fear is why Varner should’ve known better, not because sharing what he knew was necessarily wrong, but because there could only be one possible reaction to it. Still, Varner tried anyway, proclaiming to the tribe that Zeke is transgender and him not sharing that information proves how much deception he is capable of. Predictably, each and every one of Varner’s tribe members decried his revelation. Shockingly, host Jeff Probst did too when he nullified the need to vote by simply banishing Varner for his misdeed. Subsequently, social media has relentlessly attacked Varner to the point that he lost his real life job as realtor.
Please allow me to stop here for a moment to emphasize a very important point. Not once did Varner say that being transgender is deceptive. His entire point was that because Zeke didn’t share such an essential part of his identity with anyone on two seasons (Gamechangers is a season of returning players) he is capable of hiding anything. That point is completely fair and true. The response is, of course, that Zeke revealing that he is transgender puts him at risk because being transgender is still met with hostility in our culture, so Zeke has every right to hide that part of himself. Besides, the argument continues, straight cisgender people aren’t judged by their sexuality and gender, so why should Zeke be? No, according to this perspective, Zeke had an expectation of privacy regarding being transgender…even though he twice went on a reality television show that films you for 24 hours a day for up to 39 days.
Except Zeke’s behavior in response to Varner’s outing him demonstrated that even he did not expect that privacy. His statements were the most respectable and rational of anyone at that Tribal Council because they were clearly prepared. And why were they prepared? Because Zeke is smart. He knew that being transdgender is a big part of his identity and that the odds of him being on Survivor without that fact being uncovered were extremely low. And to his credit, though it was revealed in probably the most difficult way for him emotionally beyond someone outright attacking and decrying him for it, he handled himself with grace and poise. In fact, he was the only person who didn’t attack Varner.
So now I sit here with my head in my hands wondering what I should do next. Emotionally, I want to be done with you, Survivor. Every day I watch our culture battle over the supremacy of feelings or reality and more often than not see feelings win. But you, you have always held strong and showed that reality was the ultimate arbiter, more often than not demonstrating what happens if you exalt feelings over it. This time, though, you didn’t. You squashed the discussion and decried the dissenters. Even though being transgender is a new and controversial phenomenon (yes, I said controversial), you shut down the discussion by showing that if you dare to even bring it up, you will be destroyed and dismissed. And I very intentionally say bring it up as Varner was clearly only attempting a move in the game as he over and over again noted that in his real life he advocates for transgender rights.
Where do we go from here, Survivor? I loved you for so long, but now I feel deeply betrayed. I never wanted to watch a man’s life be destroyed, and I never expected you to go the same direction as all of the other social-justice-converged media. But here we are. I honestly don’t expect Zeke being transgender to be brought up again. (If it is, the players who attacked Varner for outing Zeke are hypocrites as the other tribe still have no idea he is transgender as they don’t know what happens at Tribal Councils they don’t attend.) Still, I also can’t look at you or any of the players who signaled their virtue by attacking Varner the same again. They, and you, are either dupes or cowards.
I’ve already thought through what I would’ve done if I was at that Tribal Council. When Probst said everyone agreed that Varner would be leaving, I would have stood up, noted my disagreement, thrown my torch in the fire, and walked out because Varner didn’t deserve to be treated that way. And now I don’t know how I don’t walk out and never look at you again. I loved you, Survivor, but I think what you did is unforgivable. And maybe one day I’ll learn that I’m wrong and openly admit it (though I doubt it), but right now, I’m just being honest.
I wish I could say the same for you.
Justin M. Lesniewski