Survivor has been a TV staple since its premiere in 2000. The show, which premiered its 44th season on March 1, 2023, sends two (or sometimes three or four) tribes of castaways to a remote island where they have to survive the elements and each other. It’d be difficult to find someone who has never heard of the show — variations of the phrase “voted off the island” have been in popular vernacular since Survivor’s premiere.
In Borneo (season 1), Richard Hatch, an out gay man, won the $1 million prize. In a game of social capital, seeing a gay man win the first season of what was a cultural phenomenon, was a huge step for LGBTQ+ folks on television, even if Hatch wasn’t always portrayed in the most positive light. Even still, the show screened his friendship with ex-Navy Seal Rudy Boesch on TVs all over America.
Upon Boesch’s death in 2019, Hatch tweeted, “Ours was an interesting bond, Dear Rudy! You and I helped open minds and undermine prejudices” — and it’s true. Hatch and Boesch were an unlikely pair, whose friendship only cemented Survivor’s role in creating a show about what happens when different people come together.
Of course, Survivor has had many shortcomings in the area of diversity and inclusion, some due to the show’s castings and some due to gender and racial inequity brought to the island. In its 41 seasons, 25 men have won, but only 17 women, with Survivor 41’s winner, Erica Casupanan, the first woman to win since Sarah Lacina in Survivor Game Changers (season 34) and the first woman of color to win since Natalie Anderson in Survivor: San Juan Del Sur (season 29). Only two LGBTQ+ contestants have won Survivor, both white gay men (Richard Hatch, season 1 and Todd Herzog, season 15).
Sure, someone could argue that the people who won deserved to win — and I usually agree with the jury’s verdict — but it seems that LGBTQ+ people (and women and people of color) have a harder time getting to make the case for their win to the jury. Racial bias in Survivor has been a long known issue and after Winners at War (season 40), which concluded weeks before the murder of George Floyd, past contestants and fans of the show called for more POC inclusion both in the cast and in production.
Survivor has long been under criticism for its treatment of its castways from historically marginalized backgrounds. In a glaringly homophobic characterization, Survivor: Gabon (season 17) portrayed castaway Charlie Herschel as hopelessly in love with fellow contestant Marcus Lehman. Many of his confessionals were devoted to him gushing about Lehman’s good looks, even though he was said to be a master strategist by the other players in the season. The editors made jokes at the expense of Herschel and the show’s queer audience.
In recent seasons, Survivor has featured more queer characters with prominence. Audience favorites like Tai Trang (Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, season 32 and Survivor: Game Changers), Zeke Smith (Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, season 33, and Survivor: Game Changers) and Donathan Hurley (Survivor: Ghost Island, season 36) have elevated the status of queer characters on the show, each of them breaking out of the “mold” Survivor often traps its LGBTQ+ castaways in.
Zeke Smith, in particular, may be the biggest name in queer castaways because of his touching relationship with fellow gay castaway Brett LaBelle in Survivor: Millenials vs. Gen X and his outing at a Survivor: Game Changers tribal council.
The episode skyrocketed to the national stage. Gay castaway Jeff Varner, one of Smith’s tribemates, outed Smith as a trans man in an attempt to paint Smith as dishonest, with the intent for Varner to save himself from being voted out. Smith’s tribemates (and host Jeff Probst) rallied around him, sending Varner home without even taking a vote. While on the screen it seems like the show handled the event as well as it could, a 2020 reflection by Smith details the loneliness he felt afterward when his outing was swept under the rug by cast and crew.
While the show did not take any measures to increase the number of LGBTQ+ castaways on following seasons, its commitment to diversity and inclusion is prominent in Survivor 41, likely due to the criticism following Survivor: Winners at War. The season features one of the most diverse casts since Survivor: Cook Islands (2006), a season which questionably starts with four tribes divided by race. Survivor 41 has its straight, white characters, but for the first time in a long time, it seemed like Survivor’s casting agents sought out diverse competitors for the show.
The season also features a whopping three LGBTQ+ contestants: Genie Chen, Evvie Jagoda, and Ricard Foyé. Chen’s personal story made an impact despite of her short stint on the show and Jagoda became a fan favorite in the likes of Aubry Bracco (Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, Survivor: Game Changers, and Survivor: Edge of Extinction, season 38) and Christian Hubicki (Survivor: Ghost Island).
Both Jagoda and Foyé, 41’s fifth place finisher, were part of the conversation regarding Probst changing his classic “come on in, guys!” to “come on in,” thus removing the gendered language to be more inclusive. Jagoda spoke up saying they did not feel excluded by the phrasing, but at the next challenge Foyé requested “guys” be dropped. Probst was on board with the change and used the new phrasing for the entirety of Survivor 41.
In fact, Foyé was given one of the most prominent storylines — alongside friend and competitor Shan Smith — wherein he had the space to share an unfiltered queer life, unlike we’ve seen on previous seasons. His conversation about his yet-to-be-born child with Xander Hastings was one of the most emotional moments of the show — in a season full of emotional moments inclusive of diverse voices and experiences.
Watching the season was seeing the show at its most self aware — and it has continued on that path during Survivor 42 and Survivor 43. Both seasons featured a landmark number of queer characters at the forefront of the gameplay and the show’s narrative arc.
Survivor 42, which premiered on March 9, 2022, has the largest number of queer castaways of any series at 5. With an 18-person cast, this means that queer people are a little over a quarter of the show’s contestants. Castaways Hai Giang and Lydia Meredith became fan favorites on and off screen, and even Jackson Fox, who was pulled from the game due to medical complications, had the opportunity to share his experience as a trans man with his tribemates (and anyone watching).
The upward trend continued with Survivor 43. Karla Cruz Godoy, a queer woman, was a major player throughout the season and at one point dabbled into old-school villain territory. Despite her narrative visibility and the inclusion of other LGBTQ+ castaways, the season still had its issues — whether intentional or not, five of the nine women cast on the show were voted out before jury eligibility (only two men had been voted out at this point).
Now, with Survivor 44, we’re promised a new new era with a landmark SIX (!) LGBTQ+ contestants on the show.
Changes should still be made — especially behind the camera — but future seasons are promising to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ contestants.