Dear Cis People — We Need to Talk about Survivor

Last on night on Survivor, in an attempt to save his own position in the game, Jeff Varner outed his teammate Zeke as being trans. The reaction was swift and actually worked to unify everyone in the feeling that Varner had to go. I have watched many seasons of Survivor and I have never seen host Jeff Probst look more disgusted at anything.

After Varner’s bombshell, the tribes members took turns addressing what was going on. Most of them, in between tears, talked about how they understood that Varner probably felt backed into a corner and that they thought he probably regretted saying it, but that forcibly outing someone is never acceptable. They aren’t wrong in the fact that the guilt obviously hit Varner pretty quickly as he realized exactly what he’d done. But, the most interesting reaction was from Sarah, a Midwestern police officer, who, earlier in the day, had believed strategic lies that Varner had told her to get her to turn on her ally Zeke. Her crisis of faith was evident on her face as she stared into the fire and, I assumed, was trying to figure out how to vote now that Varner had so completely and inappropriately overplayed his hand. But, when she finally spoke, she kept repeating that she would never want to be like Varner and she doesn’t treat people like that. She emotionally talked about how she’s from the Midwest where there is less diversity and that she’d never really met a trans person, but the fact that she still loved Zeke, even after this whole revelation, showed her how much she had grown. She was really the only one to decisively and firmly say that what Varner had done was malicious and wrong.

There is a lot of debate around the term ‘ally’. Some people like it, some people don’t, but for the sake of this conversation, we’re going to use it to describe members of the majority group who want to support those being oppressed. I understand everyone’s reaction to want to sympathize with Varner, he was obviously very distraught by the end. But supporting that sort of behavior doesn’t make us good allies. This isn’t a situation where someone said something small, without meaning to, and needs help in being corrected. He knew exactly what he was doing, even as he claimed that he didn’t. Or, if he didn’t know, then correction is going to make than a simple explanation and an apology.

Zeke, to his absolute credit, handled the situation with poise and understanding. He gave eloquent and thoughtful answers to questions that Jeff Probst asked him about his life before Survivor and his decision to not come out to his tribe. One of his answers, which touched on the fact that maybe his story could be an inspiration to fans that were struggling with their own identity or fans, like his teammate Sarah, who had never really met a trans person to open their minds.

CBS and Zeke released a statement last night that is at the heart of what we as cis* people need to understand. Zeke said that what we saw on Survivor last night is important because we saw that hate does not always have to win. We saw a trans person being accused of being a fraud and a group of people definitely shut that notion down.

The idea that trans people are frauds is the underpinning of every conversation society seems to have about them. Varner used the fact that Zeke is trans to try to prove that he is good at deception. (Yes, he seriously said that.) This is present in narratives about trans people going through a ‘phase’, ‘just playing dress up’ and wondering if they’ll ‘change their minds’. When we refuse to let trans women in the bathroom, the argument is what if they are men in disguise. Trans women are not men in disguise. Trans women are not in the bathroom to assault anyone. They are, and this may be shocking, just in the bathroom to do one of two things that everyone else does in the bathroom.

You’ve probably been in the bathroom with a trans person and just don’t know it. And that’s perfectly fine because you really don’t need to be that interested in what other people are doing there. I’m sure I’ve been in the bathroom unknowingly with trans women. I’ve also knowingly been in the bathroom with trans women. If she had any thoughts about me, I’m pretty sure it was just hoping that I’d pee quickly because we’d waited in line a long time.

* Cisgender (often abbreviated to simply cis) is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth (Thanks Wikipedia)