Sunday, April 23, 2017

4/24/17—Being the Tragic Catalyst

Varner's on the left, Zeke's on the right and the girl in between is conservative.
So I was watching Survivor and something really deep happened.

If you don't watch, the show has been on 34 seasons (twice a year, so 17 years). The premise is that a group of maybe 20 people have to survive on their own in a deserted area and, one by one over the course of 39 days, someone is voted off the island. The fans seem to like it when old players return. So every few seasons they have an all-star show. This is one of those seasons. And I'll confess: I haven't watched all 34 seasons of the show, but I've watched a lot of them.

So there are these two, openly gay male Survivors, Jeff Varner and Zeke. (We call Jeff Varner "Varner", because the host of the show is Jeff Probst and he gets to be "Jeff".) So Varner and Zeke had recently struck a special bond in the game, and they confided in each other over some personal things. I think both of these guys are on their third game of Survivor, so they know it could be risky to confide in others and form secret pacts, but they did. And part of the bond was that Zeke would tell Varner if he was going to be voted out next.

So the in-crowd have a straw poll to see who to send home and it comes down to Varner and another guy, Ozzie. And this is where things start going wrong. Zeke defends Ozzie and says he'll vote out Varner. It's clear he genuinely likes both of them, so he must have a stronger pact with Ozzie. Then Zeke, keeping his word, tells Varner he's getting voted out. Varner figures out Zeke's loyalties aren't  with him, so he sets out to cast suspicion on Zeke and Ozzie, hoping they'll go against Zeke and vote Ozzie out instead. It's a pretty crappy game that way. Lots of backstabbing.

But that's not the bad part. It gets worse. 

When they go to Tribal Council that night to vote out either Varner or Ozzie (and we don't know which at this point) the host, Jeff Probst, asks some questions. And Varner starts talking about how everyone should vote out Ozzie and how Zeke can't be trusted. And then, to punctuate Zeke's deceit, he reveals something that NOBODY knew—at least not the viewers or other players. He outs Zeke as a transsexual. And, worse, he did it as if to say that being transsexual is a special kind of deceit that can't be forgiven.

All the players immediately attack Varner for outing Zeke. Varner himself then realizes how horrible he low he'd go to win that million dollar prize. It was the first time in 34 seasons that they didn't even have a formal vote. Jeff Probst just kind of ejected Varner from the show. Which is big because Jeff is a stickler for tradition. He's dedicated himself to this show for 34 seasons and gets pissy when it's disrespected. And Varner...this huge Survivor fan...this proud gay man...will forever be humiliated by his own complete asshattery. It was extremely uncomfortable to watch.

But that's only half of the story. Because after Zeke was outed, one of his fellow players said she came from a conservative background and wasn't exposed to LGBTQ people very often. But she had known Zeke 18 days and thought he was kickass. And she had come to love and care for him. And she was emotional because now she knew that being transsexual didn't change anything. She saw how trivial gender identity was in the scheme of things. It was a transformative moment for her.

When Zeke finally spoke, he explained that he didn't want to be "the transgender Survivor player", he wanted to be "Zeke, the Survivor player." When people learn he is transsexual, then the topic of conversation changes to his gender and away from everything else and he just wanted to be like everyone else. He handled the situation so well. He didn't even have to defend himself, because the whole cast rallied around him and defended him. And by the time the entire confrontation was over, he was over it and hopeful that he would help others out there just by talking openly about it. It was a beautiful thing.

And the reason I'm writing about this is that, as I was watching it, I kind of detached from the drama and I clearly saw Varner as the tragic catalyst in a much bigger, more beautiful thing. And it really is tragic because you could see that his intentions were bad, but even he didn't realize how bad until the words came out of his mouth and he realized what he'd done. He was thinking about a million dollars and how to get out of being eliminated. He wasn't thinking of Zeke or the LGBTQ community (of which he's a part) or humanity as a whole. He utterly shamed and humiliated himself.

But without him, this beautiful thing wouldn't have happened. I mean, the audience has known Zeke for years. I honestly never suspected. And, like all of the survivors, I also found it utterly irrelevant in the context of the game, and shameful to out him in that way. I mean, clearly his family and friends knew, but nobody else did. But it was also irrelevant to who Zeke is. Zeke is weaselly, yet sensitive. But weaselly is the game. So I imagine millions of people watching wanted to jump in and defend Zeke, too. He is endearing.

So, this probably made a dent in the understanding and acceptance of LGBTQs. But in order for it to happen, Varner had to be shamefully malevolent. He was the necessary catalyst for this beautiful thing. He was the flap of the wing that set the whole thing in motion. Without that darkness, light wouldn't have had its opportunity to shine. And I thought of all the times someone's darkness was a catalyst for something, albeit painful in the process, better and more beautiful in my life. And how many times I might have been the dark catalyst in the lives others. In a way, it makes those memories that make you cringe, all of a sudden more OK. I imagine we have all been Varner and we've all been Zeke at one time or another.

Seeing it unfold the way I did was fascinating because you could tell there was something larger guiding it. I mean, Varner is no innocent, but that's not him. This was cruel and heartless, and it took him a good couple of minutes to even understand the gravity of what he'd done. He was possessed. By money and winning, yes. But also by something unexplainable moving through him to cause this moment to happen. I know I've felt similarly possessed before myself.

Ten months have passed since that happened in real time, but in show time, Zeke is still in the game. In real time he's still showing grace, but is having a hard time forgiving. Varner has lost his real world job and is in therapy over this. He is utterly ashamed and remorseful.

It's easy to be on the outside and see where all of this was necessary in order for humanity to move toward greater understanding and acceptance. Any kind of progress on that scale is going to be messy and painful. We saw it (and still see it) with racial and women's rights. And it will continue until we finally get in our heads that we are all equal.

There hasn't been a lot to be positive about in terms of social progress these days. But I had always had the belief that racism and the like is not quelled by policies, but by the voluntary policing of society. And stuff like this is what gives me hope that society is up to the task.