The Tiger King Star You Didn’t Know Was Transgender

by | Mar 31, 2020 | QUEER RVA

On International Transgender Day Of Visibility, it’s the perfect time to clarify the true identity of a main character from the hottest new Netflix show this year, Tiger King.

It’s Transgender Day of Visibility, but at least one transgender person who has been in the forefront of a lot of discussions lately isn’t being recognized at all. It’s time to change that.

You’ve seen Tiger King, right? Based on the many social media discussions I’ve encountered recently, it seems almost everyone has. For the few of us who remain uninitiated, I should explain that this docu-series — a Netflix original, natch — covers a feud between two keepers of lions, tigers, and assorted jungle cats that ultimately led to a murder plot and a whole lot of other sordid and ridiculous shenanigans.

It certainly has some LGBTQ aspects; Joe Exotic, the Oklahoma big-cat keeper and showmen at the center of this whole wacky thing, is at the center of a polyamorous gay throuple whose tripartite marriage is one of the many memorable incidents in the show. But there’s another pretty important LGBTQ-related fact about the show that neither the show itself nor most of the coverage around it will make clear to you, and that’s that Saff Saffery is actually a transgender man.

Saffery, who like many of the characters on Tiger King, is wildly colorful and entertaining, is most notable due to having lost his hand and forearm to one of Joe Exotic’s tigers. While this was certainly a traumatic experience, he returned to work less than a week later, and never blamed the tiger, instead blaming himself for being “complacent,” according to a YouTube interview he gave to comedian David Spade last week.

Referred to by his deadname and by female pronouns throughout the show, Saffery has nonetheless repeatedly stated his correct pronouns and what name he prefers to be called. This fact was publicized on Twitter by Robert Moor, who created Joe Exotic: Tiger King, a multi-part podcast for the Wondery podcast network. In the midst of a long Twitter thread of “Tiger King trivia,” he wrote, ” (Not really “trivia,” but a useful piece of info for anyone discussing the show): Saff, the person who got mauled by the tiger, told me repeatedly that he is trans, prefers to be called Saff (not “Kelci”), and uses he/him pronouns. So please do likewise.”

This inspires an obvious question: if Moor knew this, and was smart enough to put it out there, why isn’t Saffery’s correct name and gender used in Netflix’s Tiger King docu-series? According to Moor, this was partly the fault of media coverage at the time — and partly the fault of Joe Exotic himself.

“It’s tricky,” Moor said in a follow-up tweet. “Because all of the news broadcasts at the time, and most of the people at the zoo, use the wrong pronouns for Saff. (Joe was particularly bad about this.)”

So basically, this dude — widely regarded by fans of the show as one of the few decent people involved in the whole Joe Exotic affair — had a pretty cool job, but had to put up with some pretty terrible things in order to keep it. Notably, a boss who couldn’t be bothered to get his pronouns right — a phenomenon I’m sure a lot of trans people out here are familiar with.

And that, as I can tell you from firsthand experience, is bad enough when you’re starting your transition and at a vulnerable point. For that job to later result in massive media coverage that also completely fails to get your name and pronouns right certainly adds insult to injury.

So today of all days, let’s all make a note to get this right, and put some respect on Saff Saffery’s name. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

Top Photo via Robert Moor/Twitter

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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