The reality competition show Survivor has been running strong for seventeen years and is on its thirty-fourth season. But in all their seasons, never had they had a transgender contestant. And never has someone been “outed” on their show. Both happened recently.
Survivor contestant Zeke Smith was outed by a fellow contestant as being transgender in an attempt to show that Zeke had the capability of being “deceptive”. Zeke’s tribemates/fellow contestants quickly came to his aid, arguing his transgender status had nothing to do with the game and was a personal aspect of his life. Although Survivor is just a reality TV show, it highlighted a genuine issue in today’s society – the misconception of transgender people and the discrimination they face.
What is Transgender?
A transgender person is a person whose internal sense of him or herself is different than the gender assigned at birth. It is different than one’s sexual orientation, or who a person is attracted to. In that regard, sexual orientation relates to whether a person is gay, lesbian, heterosexual, or bisexual. Just because a person is transgender does not also mean that he or she is gay or lesbian.
Approximately seven-hundred thousand people identify as transgender in the United States. A recent study showed that a staggering 41% of transgender people in the United States have attempted to commit suicide, compared with 4.6% of the general public.
Transgender Laws in the U.S.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have protections for transgender people, but their protections vary. For instance, Colorado, Illinois, and Minnesota ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and defines “sexual orientation” to include gender identity. A number of states protect transgender students from discrimination or harassment in public schools. Nevada bans discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations such as retail stores, restaurants, and hospitals.
Additionally, there are federal laws which protect transgender people against housing and employment discrimination. In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that discriminating against someone because that person is transgender is a Title VII violation. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development finds discrimination against transgender tenants or home buyers illegal sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
Despite the laws in place to protect the transgender community, they still are bullied, fired from their jobs, passed up for raises, and discriminated against simply for being transgender.
Transgender Rights and the Bathroom
During his last term in office, President Obama issued a directive to all public schools in the country allowing transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. The declaration was signed by the Justice and Education department officials and described what schools can do if any of their transgender students were discriminated against. While it did not carry the force of law, it did impose a threat for any school that did not abide by the law as they may face lawsuits or loss in federal aid.
Consistent with his hateful propaganda and lack of support for the LGBT community, President Trump rescinded the protections for these students that President Obama created.
The transgender community is still sadly misunderstood. During March Madness, North Carolina (the eventual winners of the tournament) was scheduled to host championship games. They were stripped of the honor by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) because the state of North Carolina bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond with their biological sex. In other words, in North Carolina, transgender individuals cannot use the restroom of the gender they identify as, but as the gender they were born as. Eventually, the NCAA reversed course and scheduled championship games in North Carolina, but received harsh criticism for doing so.
The significance of Survivor highlighting a transgender player and the type of discrimination he faced shows that we are nowhere near inclusive civil rights for the transgender community. But at least it brought about discussion, which can hopefully lead to change.