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.