Zeke Smith didn’t want to be known as the “first transgender Survivor star.”
Now, another contestant has taken that choice away.
During Wednesday night’s episode of Survivor: Game Changer, which finds contestants from previous seasons returning to the “reality” competition show, Jeff Varner unexpectedly outed the 29-year-old Smith as a transgender man.
“Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?” Varner pointedly asked Zeke, in front of their team at the tribal council, where they were about to vote to eliminate one of their number from the show.
Varner was immediately condemned by the other members of the “tribe” who shouted things like, “That’s personal!” and, “You didn’t have to do that!” and, “Nobody has the right to out anybody.” Tai Trang, a 51-year-old gay gardener, was particularly outraged and leapt to Smith’s defense.
Varner defended himself at first, saying that he did it to “show the deception” that Zeke was capable of and insisting that he “argue[s] for the rights of transgender people every day in the state of North Carolina.”
“I don’t want the perception to be that I’m this evil hateful person,” he said.
But as the other contestants—and even Survivor host Jeff Probst—pressed on what Probst called the “giant leap of logic” behind the suggestion that Smith not being out as transgender somehow proved that he was deceptive, Varner began to break down. He stumbled, contradicted himself again, and ultimately apologized to Smith several times before being voted out unanimously by his teammates. The final shot of the episode showed Varner, his head in his hands, crying.
Both Varner and Smith were already out as gay men prior to tonight’s episode. Fifty-year-old Varner previously competed on 2001’s Survivor: The Australian Outback and 2015’s Survivor: Cambodia without making much noise about his sexual orientation. During an “Ask Me Anything” on the Survivor subreddit last year, however, one user called him “one of my few gay idols” and Varner responded: “I’m humbled. Fly glitterbug, fly!” (“uhhh. jeffs gay?” wrote one shocked user.)
Smith’s history with the series is shorter. In a video filmed for the 2016 season of the long-running reality show, the Harvard graduate revealed that he is gay, noting that he told “the world” at age 15. Now, because of Varner’s unexpected outing, fans know that Smith is transgender as well.
The outing came as even more of a shock because Varner and Smith were shown bonding as recently as last week’s episode, talking strategy on a rocky beach.
“I will be the first one to admit I like Jeff,” Smith said in a confessional last week. “I like him a lot. We have connected and bonded quite a bit.”
But—as you do on Survivor, which is equal parts mind games and physical endurance tests—Smith led Varner to believe that he was going to vote to eliminate a contestant other than the one Smith actually ended up voting for last week. At the start of tonight’s episode, Varner seemed hurt that he had been cut out of the loop but Smith tried to smooth things over.
“Zeke and I have bonded and I think he genuinely feels bad about what he did to me tonight,” said Varner.
But then alliances shifted and Varner began to feel like his back was up against the wall. Midway through the episode, he suggested that he might have an ace-in-the-hole: “I know something about Zeke that nobody else knows.” (In a February interview with XFinity, Varner said, “Zeke, when I first saw him I thought, that’s a lesbian with a mustache.”) A few minutes later at the tribal council, it became tragically apparent what exactly Varner thought he knew about Smith.
“I didn’t want to be the ‘first transgender Survivor star,’” Smith told People in an exclusive interview. “I’m not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story. I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game.”
Smith added that Varner wanted to paint him as “deceitful” but that the strategy ultimately backfired. “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. What’s great is that nobody bought it.”
Outing transgender people without their consent can have disastrous effects on their mental health, their employment prospects, and their personal relationships—even if they are already out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. (And, according to one large national survey, 77 percent of transgender people are something other than straight.)
“Not only is [outing] an invasion, it can have negative consequences in a world that is very intolerant of gender diversity,” the LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD explains in an online resource for transgender allies. “Transgender people can lose jobs, housing, friends, or even their lives when other people find out about their gender history.”
In a statement posted to Twitter, GLAAD called the episode “a gut-wrenching look at the consequences of outing a transgender person against his will.”
Varner, of course, should know the perils of being outed firsthand. LGBT people can all be harmed by non-consensual outing but transgender people are especially affected by the idea that not being out is inherently “deceptive.” That’s why GLAAD discourages the use of terms like “stealth,” due to its connotations of deceitfulness: “When transgender people are living as their authentic selves, and are not perceived as transgender by others, that does not make them deceptive or misleading.”
A handful of people on Survivor forums and websites had speculated that Smith might be transgender but without any confirmation. Ironically, one fan found it “refreshing that a trans person can compete without being singled out as some sort of ‘different’ than anyone else.” Another understood why he might not want to be out: “Visibility is good, but only if he was comfortable with telling the story.”
Indeed, transgender people are often protecting themselves from unnecessary spectacles like the one instigated by Varner. Asked if they had obtained Smith’s permission to air the outing, CBS referred The Daily Beast to Varner’s apology on Twitter, Smith’s exclusive interview with People (more on those below), and Probst’s interview with EW, in which he said that “Zeke was fully aware someone might suspect it or bring it up and he said, ‘I will deal with it as it arises.’”
Probst, who is also a producer on the show, had previously tweeted that he hoped the episode would “ultimately effect change”:
Smith seems to be taking the blow in stride, focusing on the lessons others can learn from Varner’s mistake. He told People that he was “shell-shocked” when the outing happened but added that he hopes viewers noticed the consequences for Varner: “It’s important people see he lost that fight. The message should be clear that hate will always lose.”
After news leaked early Wednesday that Varner would out Smith on the night’s episode, he referred a request for comment to CBS, which has yet to respond. He also began retweeting supporters, including one who wrote “(I) know ur not intentionally malicious.”
Shortly after the episode aired, he released a statement on Twitter offering “heart-felt apologies” and stating, “let me be clear, outing someone is assault.”
As for Zeke Smith, the world now knows he is transgender. And tonight, his identity was made into national news. In a tweeted statement of his own, he said, “Don’t out people.”
But hopefully he can go back to being “Zeke the Survivor player”—as he said he wanted to be known after Varner outed him—not “the first transgender Survivor star.” As his fellow contestants reassured him, “Zeke the Survivor player” is exactly who he is.