TV show sparks debate on the ethics of ‘outing’

It’s not often that a TV reality show sparks a national conversation on the ethics of “outing” another person, but it’s not often a TV reality show “outs” an individual as CBS’ Survivor did last night when contestant Jeff Varner — a former news anchor — revealed that fellow contestant Zeke Smith is transgender.

Many viewers, who quickly took to social media, wanted Varner voted off the planet, insisting his revelation was an act of violence.

As soon as the episode aired, CBS started a public relations campaign to calm the anticipated blowback, the Washington Post reports today.

“Zeke Smith, and transgender people like him, are not deceiving anyone by being their authentic selves, and it is dangerous and unacceptable to out a transgender person,” Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, said in a statement. “It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are.”

The media program worked with show producers and Smith for months before the episode to make sure the reveal was handled with sensitivity, namely ensuring that Smith had an opportunity to tell his own story on his terms, according to the statement.

Late Wednesday, the Hollywood Reporter published a lengthy guest column from Smith. He described his transitioning process, how competing on “Survivor” helped him prove his “manliness” to himself and what it felt like to be outed on national television.

“Let me be clear, outing someone is assault,” Varner said in a statement posted after the show. “It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger. It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime. I am profoundly sorry.”

Why did CBS air the show in the first place? The show’s host claims he hoped “something greater” would come from doing so.

  • MrE85

    I have never seen that show. With any luck, I never will.

  • Gary F

    Amazing what a million dollars will make people say.

    • Well, that’s really the fascinating behavioral issue, isn’t it. Everyone has a price for their ethics and/or moral code.

    • BJ

      Is the prize still 1 million, I thought it dropped a few years ago. I stopped watching after the 1st reunion show (have there been more).

      • Gary F

        I’d have to ask the Mrs.

      • Jess

        It’s still a million. I still watch it. I was pretty shocked when I watched last night. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been shocked watching Survivor. I keep hoping they’ll really flip the script and do something new, but it’s probably time to end the show.
        I’m a realist- it’s hard not to believe the show is loving the ratings grab from this incident. But- I hope the impact is heard. I’m sure most viewers were stunned.

  • jon

    Quest for ratings.

  • Mike Worcester

    Almost twenty-five years ago, Randy Shilts, author of And The Band Played On, and the biography of Harvey Milk, labeled outing as “lavender facism”. His central assertion was that to out someone when they wanted to stay hidden was to force them to deal with a subject they either were not prepared for or willing to deal with. No matter what the circumstance, Shilts felt it was unfair to that person, that the decision should be theirs and theirs alone. Question might be here — should that still be the case?

    • wjc

      Pretty simple in my eyes. Yes, that should still be the case.

    • RBHolb

      I agree with Junebug: outing someone against their will is wrong, unless they are people who are anti-LGBTQ. It’s the distinction between outing a Roy Cohn and a Malcolm Forbes (Forbes was private about his sexuality and did not, as far as I know, make anti-LGBTQ pronouncements).

  • “The media program worked with show producers and Smith for months before
    the episode to make sure the reveal was handled with sensitivity,
    namely ensuring that Smith had an opportunity to tell his own story on
    his terms, according to the statement.”

    Does this not change the circumstance, at all? To the viewing public, it is a new “reveal”; but to the participants, the matter appears to have been settled to everyone’s satisfaction (more or less) before the episode was broadcast.

    Twenty years ago, didn’t Ellen Degeneres feel threatened enough by outing that she negotiated with ABC to have her character, Morgan, and, by extension, herself, revealed as a lesbian?

    • Laurie K.

      I am not sure I understand your point. So are you saying because Mr. Smith had worked with a small group [the producers and the rest of the participants] that it should have been okay that his gender identity was revealed to millions by someone else, without his knowledge or consent?

      • But, that’s the change in context: Smith’s gender identity was revealed with his full knowledge and consent. Just FYI, filming for this series was completed in June-July 2016.

        If Smith was not comfortable with the reveal being broadcast, would CBS have still aired the episode (or any part of that story arc)? I think not.

      • Barton

        But, that episode was filmed months ago. He was outed to his “tribe” not to millions at the time. And it appears obvious that the Verner did it simply to be manipulative (assumption from watching the video) assuming that others in the tribe would turn against Zeke for who he was/is.

        But between when the event occurred and when it was aired, it appears Smith made a conscious decision to allow that to be aired. I truly think if he didn’t want that to be aired, CBS/the producers would not have done so – possibly not have been able to do so. And, if CBS/the producers did so w/o the full consent of Smith, I’d guess we’d be hearing a loud cry of outrage from him.

        So, outed originally without his consent, then spinning the outing to “the world” in a way that possibly maintains a bit of control for himself.

  • Kassie

    Is outing someone ok? No.

    That said, many, many things that happen on reality tv shows are not ok. That’s the point of them it seems, to bring out the worst in everyone. I think this man knew it was very likely he would be outed and chose to accept that risk.

  • Jerry

    “Outing someone is assault”.

    I’m really interested in this claim. First of all, it is obviously false as stated. But let’s put that aside for the moment. Is outing somebody as *bad* as assault? In particular, does it violate somebody’s rights? It’s an extremely cruel thing to do, sure, but from another perspective, all this guy did was acknowledge something he knew to be true. Can it really be the *right* of a transgender person that anybody who knows that fact about them must keep it a secret? That anybody who came by that knowledge, even by accident, is then morally bound to pretend that something they know to be false, is true? Personally, I have a hard time buying that.

    • // is then morally bound to pretend that something they know to be false, is true? Personally, I have a hard time buying that.

      What is it in this case that’s false?

      • Jerry

        The notion that this guy is cisgender.

        • Kassie

          I doubt at any time he lied about his gender, though I haven’t watched the show. Presenting yourself as yourself is not hiding something or lying. I have no obligation to state at any time what sex the government recorded me as at my birth and find basically zero reason to do so in the course of my life. I doubt it came up for this man either.

          • Jerry

            Sure. I’m not suggesting that anybody lied, or anything like that. If this guy wants to strategically keep his mouth shut about what it says on his birth certificate, that’s completely fine. What I’m saying is, I don’t think he has a right for other people to join him in that silence. On the contrary, I think we have a right to talk about anything we want to talk about. Is it a completely cruel thing to out somebody? Absolutely. But does it violate their rights? I just don’t see it.

        • Did he declare a gender at any point up until last night?

  • Rob

    I’m curious as to what Probst had in mind when he said he hoped “something greater” would come out of having one Survivor contestant out a fellow contestant. Why aren’t there any journalists putting his and CBS’ feet to the fire on this?