I thank the heavens above on a regular basis that I have enough sense not to thrust myself on to a reality TV show like "Survivor: Game Changers." Survivor in particular always strikes me as the most physically, emotionally and psychologically bruising show of its genre. I have tremendous respect for people who compete and have no qualms with winners taking home $1 million dollars for being on a TV show. I have always suspected that a show with cameras and microphones trained on me 24 hours a day under highly stressful circumstances would not end well for me. Survivor in particular is a recipe for disaster. Survivor crawls inside the tiniest and darkest crevices of each contestant's psyche and looks for chances to split it apart. One bad moment can ruin lives.
I watched in slow-motion abject horror last night as two contestants' whole lives went off the rails when one chose to out another for being transgender. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears so I had to rewind the scene. Yes, Jeff Varner did reveal the secret that Zeke Smith alone was entitled to keep or share as he pleases. "Why haven't you told anyone here you're transgender?" Varner asked.
"Oh my God," I thought. "Jeff Varner just outed a man on national television. "This is horrible on so many levels."
My heart immediately went out to Smith, an exceptionally likable person who like everyone else on Game Changers is a repeat player. In as much as one can ever really get to know someone through the filtered and edited lenses of television, Smith has struck me as a genuine, introspective, intelligent person trying to prove to himself that he could step on to the national stage and compete in a brutal game with a whole bunch of people hungry for the prize and the prize money. Smith's face went white as a ghost when Varner threw the hand grenade at him. He sat mute for quite a while as the other members of the night's Tribal Council unleashed shock and awe on Varner.
Varner didn't initially recognize the sadly life-altering mistake he had just made in front of millions of people. He at first tried to defend his decision, stating that he knew he was the one likely to be voted out that night and that he was fighting for his game life. He was trying to convince his competitors to vote for giant threat, Ozzy. He was also trying to show the group that Smith should also be the one to go because he was deceiving everyone without them even knowing it. Varner claimed Smith was secretly working with Ozzy, among other things.
On technical merit to that point, Varner was OK. Smith apparently didn't have conversations with Ozzy -- at least none shown on TV -- but sly 'ol Zeke was absolutely doing what you have to do to win the game. He was making chess moves several steps ahead of everyone else and was in fact working the vote.
If only Varner had stopped there.
Varner then lapsed into a moment that many people across the country are pronouncing as evil, hateful and unforgivable. He asked Smith the fateful question about why he had not revealed that he was transgender. Even the mild-mannered host Jeff Probst reacted sternly on the show and in interviews appearing immediately afterword.
Smith emerged from his cocoon of shock and did so with a class and grace beyond what anyone could have expected of him in that moment. Smith chose his words carefully as he sat there next to a fire with his game still alive but his private life now snuffed out. Smith said that he did not intend to make public that part of his life. He didn't want to be seen as Zeke the first transgender Survivor player but just Zeke the Survivor player. He even had the wits about him to connect the moment to the immunity contest his tribe had just lost, failing to beat the other tribe in completing a word puzzle spelling out the word "metamorphosis". He said that he realized that if any good could come to another person out there watching on TV, he would embrace the opportunity.
Ever so slowly, the reality of Varner's decision set in on him. He collapsed in tears, apologized profusely to Smith and admitted that he knew he was wrong to do what he did. He said he hoped people wouldn't paint him as something he's not, though I knew that a great many people would be quick to pull out their brushes without a second thought. I knew Varner was going to be made public enemy No. 1 within the hour. So that I make myself absolutely understood on this point, Varner's decision and his words absolutely deserve the condemnation they are receiving. The LGBT community is right to say that his remarks are unacceptable. The rest of us have the right to say Varner had no business interfering in Smith's, let alone on national television.
Before all of America condemns Varner for his motives and forces him to live under a rock the rest of his life, though, I think we should all take a breath. Attributing motive to statements made by a person we've never met can often be a murky enterprise. It's one thing with a public figure like Donald Trump. Our president is without question a vile and disgraceful human being with a lifetime of statements and actions proving exactly that. It's another with an unknown private citizen who until the fateful moment in question also seemed like a good guy. People across the country have been quick to portray Varner as a hate-monger, some sort of evil man with all kinds of nefarious beliefs.
I've obviously never met Varner and know nothing more about the man than what I've witnessed on his multiple seasons of Survivor and what I've read about him. That said, I would suggest we all try to follow Zeke Smith's lead. Smith returned Varner's hug as Varner again apologized and exited stage right. Smith said that he'll be OK and opened the door to forgiveness. He has also said in subsequent media reports that he has spent the last eight months or so trying to forgive Varner. I can't imagine Smith's pain. I can't imagine his feelings about what happened. I applaud him for responding to perceived hate with love and compassion. Love, compassion and encouragement are the only productive responses when you're genuinely trying to encourage someone to change their views. (I admit that I haven't yet found the ability to practice Smith's sterling manner with Trump supporters.)
That said, it's hard for me to imagine that Varner had hate in his heart when he revealed that Smith was transgender. Varner happens to be a middle-aged gay man from North Carolina. Having grown up in the Deep South myself, I know that Varner's life could not have been easy. He must have endured no shortage of hardship. That fact about his own life made it all the more bizarre that Varner would take it on himself to share something about Smith that he should have been able to empathize with.
What I saw on television last night was a man playing a game I could never play. I may sometimes dream about competing in "The Amazing Race" (I've won twice and lost once in my dreams) as that's more my style but I think that show would end poorly for me. I could never, ever go on Survivor because I KNOW that would end terribly for me. I don't think most of us can really imagine what it is like to have a camera and microphone trained on us 24 hours a day. I personally can't imagine what being on an island in that environment for even two weeks is like. With my high metabolism, I start turning into a bear if I eat lunch or dinner even an hour late. I turn into a migraine-headache-riddled monster if I don't have a Coca-Cola by exactly noon each day (I don't drink coffee in the morning.) I can barely sleep in the comfort of my own bed; I could not sleep with a bunch of stinky strangers on tree limbs and sand. There is no way I could survive Survivor's grueling physical demands and still be mentally sharp enough to play the social or cerebral game.
As if the grueling physical demands wouldn't be hard enough on me, I am also aware that it would be a 50-50 proposition as to whether I went down as the most loved Survivor contestant ever or the most hated. There are other truths about me that spell trouble. I can on the one hand be the most charming person you'll ever meet -- lighting up a room and working a crowd with the best of them. I am also equally capable of unleashing flashes of temper and going off on verbal tirades with the worst of them. I try to keep those tirades to the pages of my private journals but they do come out in public every once in a while. Add to the mix the fact that I am a highly competitive person. On any sports field, in any work environment or even debating politics with friends, I play to win. I am intense. Most of the time, that comes out in a healthy way -- most of the time.
I also happen to be brutally honest. As my mom once said to my current girlfriend, "Chris would rather hurt your feelings than tell you a lie." As a former girlfriend and still dear friend told me recently, "I've always loved how honest you are. Even when you were a dog, you owned it."
The last thing I would want is for the worst moment in my life to be captured on national television for eternity. To everyone slinging arrows at Jeff Varner, I would ask you to think of the 20 worst things that you have ever said, done or thought in a weak or stressful moment and ask whether you'd want to be publicly tried and sentenced based on even the ones that don't make the top ten. Now imagine No. 1 happening on national TV.
I am not excusing the words Jeff Varner said to Zeke Smith. We're right to bash those words. I think we should, however, all think about what we would really be like with hungry bellies, sun-burned skin, bugs crawling all over us, no sleep and a million dollars at stake -- money that could change our lives forever. I think we should also look at what we've seen of Varner as a whole. There is nothing about the man that we have seen on TV that would otherwise suggest he hates transgender people or any other group of people, that he would wish ill on anyone or that he understood in that split second how malicious he was being to Smith. He did obviously come to understand it moments later and his reaction seemed genuine. I think would should all look to Zeke Smith and follow his lead. Let's salute his compassion and his one-day-at-a-time-struggle to cope with what happened to him and to move forward in a positive way that makes us all better as human beings. Let's use this as a time to dig deeply into ourselves, a time for enlightenment and growth. "Metamorphosis" is a puzzle we could all benefit from solving in our own lives.
The remaining Survivor contestants, though, should blindside Smith immediately if they want to win the game the million dollars. They should do ALMOST anything they can to "Outwit, Outplay and Outlast" Smith. There's no one more dangerous in the game of Survivor than a sentimental favorite.