In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
Since the show’s conception in the year 2000, Survivor has claimed to cast Americans from all walks of life. Good evidence of this is found within queer representation nearly every season. Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss the microcosm of society that is Survivor without considering LGBTQ folk and their influence on the game.
Because of this, and because June happens to be Pride month, I will discuss some of the most influential queer players Survivor has seen.
Since this list is chronological, I’ll start with probably the most influential queer castaway in Survivor history. Richard Hatch, the winner of Borneo, had zero issues with discussing his homosexuality in the open. His season aired in the year 2000, when, according to the Pew Research Center, only 35% of Americans supported marriage equality. In this case, Survivor was well ahead of its time, presenting Richard not only as gay but also as clever, a provider, and ultimately, deserving of the win. His closest ally in the game, Rudy Boesch, had his reservations and would make them clear, but would continue to work with Richard regardless—you can read more about the Richard and Rudy relationship here. Thanks to Borneo’s success, Richard’s influence extended way past the game, making queer representation on mainstream TV a staple.
John Carroll’s casting was quite different from Richard’s. His bio described him as a multi-sport athlete, leader, ex-Air Force medic, and overall humanitarian. He was even in law school when he was cast for Marquesas. Moreso, he was not entirely out of the closet at the time. Had Hunter Ellis not fulfilled the archetype to a greater degree, I would argue John was cast as the All-American type of guy. Still, John carried his alliance very similar to Richard, putting together a core four that ran the game until the early merge.
What’s interesting about John’s story is that Rob Mariano would out him on national television as a “big-time queer,” similar to what would happen 30 seasons later in Game Changers between Jeff Varner and Zeke Smith. This situation has been sort of brushed under the carpet as a “times were different back then,” while Boston Rob has gone on to play Survivor four more times since then. It’s probably about time John got his second shot.
From Marquesas to Vanuatu, queer players had come and gone, including Richard Hatch again. Ami and Scout Cloud Lee in Vanuatu were the first LGBTQ female castaways since Sonja Christopher, Borneo’s first boot. Ami, however, was cast into a new archetype, one that sexuality had zero influence on. In fact, a similar role could be attributed to future winner Kim Spradlin. Both led successful (to some degree) all-female alliances, in an almost villainous fashion.
Ami’s sexuality did not become relevant until the family visit, where her partner at the time was a woman. This difference in portrayal could be indicative of differing levels of acceptance for male same-sex relationships vs. female ones. After all, CBS did not show Ami or Scout kissing their same-sex partners during the loved one’s visit.
Shifting towards China in 2007, Todd sprung up as the “gay Mormon.” At this point, Survivor had already aired 14 seasons, some with more controversy than others (Cook Islands, I’m looking at you). None of these major controversies had anything to do with sexuality. Gay players were already more than comfortable to claim their sexuality on the show, but not all of them. Todd is an excellent example of this. Yes, he was introduced as a gay Mormon, but he was presented as a superfan more than that. The latter quality would mean more to Todd, his personality, and gameplay than anything else. His win cemented Survivor as ahead of its time, considering its sister show, Big Brother, would not see its first queer winner until 2013.
Tai is the first player on this list to play in a time when most Americans favor marriage equality. His gameplay in both Kaoh Rong and Game Changers was interesting in that he defied what the Survivor meta was at the time but still managed to produce good results on paper. He is older, gay, and Asian; all three are demographics that do not perform very well historically on Survivor. Nevertheless, he succeeded with eccentric gameplay, including protecting a chicken and naming it after his husband (take notes Big Wendy).
Tai and his partner Mark also have the title of sharing the first same-sex kiss on Survivor‘s family visit, showing how far things have come since the days of Ami and Scout on Vanuatu. Tai also currently holds the record for the second-highest average number of days played and is the third LGBTQ person to get to Final Tribal Council (and only to lose).
Of course, there was no way this list could be complete without Zeke Smith. Zeke’s impact on queer acceptance, much like Richard’s, transcends Survivor. In Millennials vs. Gen X, Boston cop Bret Labelle felt comfortable enough to share his sexuality only with Zeke. While this moment was fuelled by strategy on Bret’s part, it represented more. On the one hand, you have queer solidarity, the phenomenon which the LGBTQ movement was based on, being able to count on each other when there was no one else to count on. On the other hand, you have a show of generational differences with Zeke feeling more comfortable sharing that part of himself because of his youth.
On Game Changers, Zeke and queer representation took a turn when, in one of the most controversial moments in Survivor, Jeff Varner outed him as transgender. The fact that it was a gay man doing this only showcases the fact that homosexual acceptance and transgender acceptance are on two completely different timelines. That Tribal speaks volumes of Survivor and its relationship with queer representation, to the point of winning a GLAAD Media Award.
My explaining it through Zeke will not do it justice, so I invite you to watch (or rewatch) it yourself, even if it’s uncomfortable viewing, Zeke’s handling of the situation is commendable. I really hope Zeke gets a chance to play again and be afforded the same luxury gay players are now afforded of being more than their identity.
Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks.