Wednesday night’s episode of Survivor ended with a disgusting twist — a contestant was outed as transgender. Zeke Smith, who transitioned while studying religion at Harvard University, was outed during a shocking tribal council when fellow tribe member Jeff Varner outed him in a desperate attempt to stay in the game.
Smith, who identified as a gay man in both seasons he’s appeared on Survivor, had not come out as trans because he didn’t want to be boxed in by that label.
“I’m not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story,” Zeke Smith told People. “I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game.”
“When you tell people you’re trans, you get two reactions: Either they look at you funny and pull back, or they go, ‘Aww, that must be so hard.’ I’m a goofy, fun-loving guy, so neither of those reactions work well for me,” he says.
Up for elimination, Varner tried to portray Smith as a liar and deceiver for keeping his transgender identity private. “There is deception here,” Varner announced. “Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.” He then asked Smith, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
“I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent. That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me because it’s the same one used to discriminate against, attack and murder trans people,” Smith says. “What’s great is that nobody bought it.”
Smith’s cast mates rebuked the fear tactic and instantly rose to his defense during the jaw dropping moment. “You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea Boehlke rebuked.
“Nobody has the right to out anybody,” Tai Trang protested.
“It’s important people see he lost that fight,” says Smith. “The message should be clear that hate will always lose.”
Nick Adams, Director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, said: “Zeke Smith, and transgender people like him, are not deceiving anyone by being their authentic selves, and it is dangerous and unacceptable to out a transgender person. It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are.”
“It’s tough with Varner,” says Smith. “I don’t think he hates trans people. I just think he has a lot of misconceptions about trans people. If he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go.”
Varner is gay himself, so we’re heartbroken to see someone from our own LGBTQ community with no empathy for others.
“Trans people are a highly vulnerable population. We make easy targets. We’re attacked a lot and I expected a lot more from Varner,” says Smith. “But I think it’s so great that you see his hateful tactics rebuffed with such amazing love and from such a diverse group that responds to him.”
Has Zeke Smith forgiven Jeff Varner?
Smith accepted Varner’s lackluster apology on the show, but looking back he may not be ready to forgive him in real life. “In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do was accept his apology and say that we’d find a way to work it out, but I don’t really – I really struggle with forgiving him every day,” says Smith.
“I’ve had to think a lot about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened. It’s not excusing what happened. I don’t even think forgiveness means I have to be his friend — and I don’t think I ever will be his friend.”
“But I think forgiveness is about hope – hope that he understands why what he did was wrong, hope that he doesn’t ever do something like this again and hope that whatever compelled him to give into his worst instincts in a dark moment is resolved for him,” Smith continues. “I do wish him the best, I just think I wish him the best from afar.”
Did Survivor producers handle the situation the right way?
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Daniel Feinberg who recaps the show weekly makes a great point. CBS and the producers of Survivor still chose to air the outing. What they didn’t choose to do was have a conversation after about what took place.
In an episode that was otherwise so unremarkable, though, I don’t understand how Probst and the Survivor producers didn’t find a way to end the tribal council with 10 minutes left and then pull back from the game and acknowledge some things.
But I still assume a conversation was had, and even if Zeke and Varner and Probst all go into detail in various interviews over the next couple months, that’s not the same as putting it in the episode, where it belonged.
I know that’s how every episode of Survivor ends, with the closing credits confessional, but this was exactly the sort of episode that deserved to be treated as 1-in-500. It was an awful thing that happened, it was a significant conversation that followed and it was a lapsed opportunity (or responsibility) from Survivor and CBS to make sure to do right by the situation.