The surprising thing I learned from Survivor.

For the past year, I’ve been binge-watching old seasons of Survivor. In this stalwart RealityTV show, 20 castaways are divided into tribes and pitted against each other for 39 days of meagre sustenance, brutal challenges, and routine “tribal councils” where players are voted off the show one-by-one until a sole survivor is chosen from the final three by a jury of former players. 

I don’t know why I have shame about watching Survivor—perhaps the thought that my television viewing should be more cerebral or educational, or that I shouldn’t be watching television at all, particularly the kind that implies a stationary posture on a couch with a bag of potato chips.

If you remember watching the first few seasons of Survivor during the dawn of reality TV, at the dawn of a new millennium, you remember the deliciously horrifying voyeurism of the genre, watching a group of individuals sacrifice their dignity and integrity on national television for a shot at the grand prize of one million dollars.

The show has its redeeming qualities—host Jeff Probst, a no-nonsense fella who has one of the most enviable jobs on the planet—being the first one. The show is also vindicated by its distinct effort to use its wide popularity and reach to give a megaphone to voices cutting across all cultural and gender lines.   

Jeff Probst

Jeff Probst

In particular, ever since the first season with the inclusion of Richard Hatch, a gay man who not only defied all tired stereotypes about gay men, but eventually won the title of sole survivor, the show has routinely demonstrated an enlightened tendency towards inclusion of members of the LGBT community, even—or particularly—when the vast majority of its viewers were still largely ignorant regarding gender issues.

Survivor is still going strong. The most recent offering pits two arbitrarily-conceived generations against each other in Season 33: Millennials versus Gen X. Arguably one of the most tender moments in that season is when a player from Gen X, a cop from Boston named Bret, confides in Zeke, a doughy Millennial openly gay nerd from New York, that he, too, is gay. 

Bret the Gen X

Bret the Gen X

“I didn’t grow up in a time when it was normal to talk about [it],” Bret says after his “coming-out” on national television. “But I’m hoping that from here on out I can be that way.”

Zeke is genuinely and pleasantly shocked. When asked why or how he masked it, Bret shrugs: “I’m from a different generation.”

Zeke’s comments got me thinking about my cousin Amy. After keeping her attractions to elementary school teachers—who inspired many love letters, poems, and drawings—a mortal secret, locked in her own confused heart for years, Amy came out unintentionally when she was 16, during a fight with her mother. 

“I know how you feel about women,” her mother charged. For a moment, Amy was small, not only under the pressure of an entire society’s carried shame, but because the accusations were coming from her own mother, the first woman she’d known. 

Mortified, Amy could only think to ask: “Does Dad know?”

Despite the argument, her parents ended up being supportive. Her younger brother, David, was wide-eyed and shy, and in his world Amy could do no wrong. Her friends supported her with strength and curiosity, demonstrating, as youth generally will when given half a chance, an enlightenment beyond the ken of their so-called “educated” and “worldly” parents. 

Notwithstanding the support of her immediate family and friends, Amy was hen-pecked by her gossipy aunts who relished the scandal and the authority that judgement gives. 

Still, one could argue that Amy was lucky, in a relative sense. Many gay people of her generation had zero support. There were ramifications, however.

The backlash Amy experienced was passive. The intensity of the shame she was expected to eat by the ignorant factions of her small-town society increased in direct proportion to the more gender queer her appearance became.

Her coming out was a draining ache of identity drawn across the landscape of most of her childhood and adolescence, wherein she lacked the societal support to bolster the development of who her heart yearned for and what she wanted to look like. 

When she was 18 Amy raged against the pressures that would keep her small by writing and publishing a newsletter, which she distributed at her high school. It was a publication about choice—the right to choose what you wear, the right to have an abortion, the right to believe what suits you, and the right to have sex with the partner you choose. The newsletter was threatening enough to the establishment that it got her expelled. 

She was writing about choice and identity in oblique terms, in a courageous attempt to create space for her own felt identity. That’s the thing about LGBT people of her generation—with a distinct lack of public role models in a culture of shame, so many of them struggled to explore and find these things on their own.

Amy was 19 when the iconic 1993 Vanity Fair arrived in the mail with the controversial cover of supermodel Cindy Crawford shaving K.D. Lang, who had just come out as gay and was dressed—quite smartly—as a man. 

Pioneer of gender-bending.

Pioneer of gender-bending.

Whatever people had to say about this cover, this image alone gave Amy tacit permission to feel more comfortable in her own skin, and to further imagine—and intend towards—who she knew she truly was. Prior to that moment she’d lacked any language to articulate her identity.  

While Amy was going through her struggles as a gay woman, I was going through my own as a sensitive son of an ape-like alcoholic / rageaholic cop. We ended up needing escape from our own lives at the same time, which was how Amy was my first road trip partner. During our respective periods of personal crisis, she and I drove out East to Cape Breton to stay in the woods at a bizarre Catholic hermitage. Neither of us was religious at the time, but our great aunt lived there and provided a destination and a free cabin to hang out while we got our shit together. That was the beginning of our respective lives on the road. 

Amy went her own way after that, and for a while I went mine. While I joined, and then left, the army, Amy was hitch-hiking across North America with her half-brained and fiercely loyal dog, Japhy Ryder (named after Kerouac’s semi-fictional portrayal of Gary Snyder in Dharma Bums), living in communes, exploring drugs, rock and roll, and a unique brand of courage, which led her to drive to Dawson City on her own in a rusted-out Ford Escort, where she became a statistic as one of every three women who will experience violent assault when she was beaten near to death. From her journal: You clobbered me with the weight of your world. Never thought I would have to yell “help me” so fiercely. So glad that I was heard. 

In recent times, I’ve had the pleasure of travelling with Amy more, and whether we are sitting through Vipassana courses,  snowboarding in Quebec, playing tennis on a clay court in Sri Lanka, or zipping through the streets of Vietnamese towns on motorbikes, it always occurs to me that Amy is more the brother I never had than anyone else I’ve known. 

Once, in Hoi An, while we were both shopping for suits, the pretty Vietnamese women were touching Amy’s face and body as they fitted her, cooing: “So handsome!” 

I was, I admit, a tad jelly. 

Throughout her adventures and her ordeals, Amy has maintained her zest for life and her ability to laugh and bring light and love into any human interaction—even heated dispute. It is no surprise that she has become a leader in the queer community in Vancouver and just received the Mayor’s Award for Arts Board Member of the Year.

I admire Amy so much I brought her to life as the lovable, free-spirited character of Gertie in my first novel, Bonk on the Head. This is why it was so crushing to me that I couldn’t attend her wedding last year at Christmas, when she married her beloved Teresa—not only because it was a celebration of their love, but because it was a celebration of Love, in all of love’s forms. 

Back when Amy first came out, many members of my mostly-Catholic family didn’t know how to take the news. They wanted to love her still, but they certainly didn’t want their neighbours or—god forbid—their priests to know the family’s ‘dirty’ little secret. 

“I know there are going to be gays,” said one, a generation above me, “But what in god’s name have they got to be proud about? We can’t be teaching our children that it’s okay to be gay.”

Oddly, that was exactly the point. We needed, desperately, to teach our children that it is wonderful to love. Love is the point, whether one loves a member of the same sex, or a person with different coloured skin, or a person with a bald head, or green eyes. Love is always valid, in any form, and the planet desperately needs more of it. 

As Zeke from Survivor put it: “I owe a lot to Bret’s generation. I would not be able to come out at 15 were there not the pioneers who paved the way. And, I think that really reflects this Millennial / Gen X divide.”

Zeke the Millennial 

Zeke the Millennial 

Recently, 9-year-old Avery Jackson had the distinction of becoming the first transgender person on the cover of National Geographic. If this proves anything, it proves that gender is—and never really was—a binary issue.

Gender is a dynamic presence along an axis of male and female polarities. 

Authenticity within the individual brings healing to the family, which brings greater harmony to the community—and ultimately to the entire energetic grid of the species. Authenticity is the only religion that is viable, which is why I am so proud of pioneers like my cousin Amy and her beautiful and brilliant wife Teresa for helping pave the way for all of us. 

So, recently, after finishing a work-out, I sat on my comfortable couch with a bag of Whole Foods house-made potato chips, and thoroughly enjoyed the Season 33 finale of Survivor—one of the most entertaining and enlightened seasons ever. And I enjoyed it without shame. Because you know what? Shame is a learned thing. A carried thing. It very rarely belongs to us.

Amy taught me that. And I guess, in a way, Survivor did, too. 

 

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