Survivor player Zeke Smith is a welcome shot of enthusiastic, wickedly smart energy on the show. He proved to be a sly force of nature throughout season 33’s Millennials vs. Gen X edition, winning allies with savvy gameplay and a wide grin. And on season 34’s Game Changers — which is currently airing and pits some of Survivor’s most interesting experienced players against one another — Zeke has been strategic, focused, and giddy as hell to be playing a game he loves with players he’s watched for years.
Zeke is also transgender. But this isn’t a fact that you, or I, or anyone outside the people he’s revealed it to would know if it weren’t for Survivor’s April 12 episode, during which a member of Zeke’s tribe outed him in a moment of vindictive desperation — while simultaneously declaring that Zeke was being deceptive by not revealing his transgender status.
Survivor has been a surprisingly astute study of personal politics since it premiered on CBS nearly two decades ago, in 2000. (I mean, watching people do puzzles in the jungle is fun, but it’s not “34 seasons and counting” levels of fun.) When pushed to their physical edges and worn down to their rawest nerves, people tend to either fall back (almost gratefully) into what a script would have them do or turn around and surprise you.
This episode was definitely a surprise — but in more ways than that first nasty moment. The way Zeke was outed furthered a pernicious misconception, the kind that puts transgender people in real danger every day. But by the end of the hour, there was, incredibly, more reason to be hopeful about the way trans people are seen and represented than before.
Zeke was outed when a fellow player got desperate and made a reprehensible decision
For a while, “What Happened on Exile Stays on Exile” was about as typical an episode of Survivor as any other episode that’s aired this season. One tribe won pizza; the other had a tearful conversation around a campfire. When Zeke’s tribe failed to spell “metamorphosis” in a word jumble during the final challenge, they were put in the unfortunate position of having to vote someone out during Tribal Council. The obvious pick was Jeff Varner, since Varner’s only ally was voted off the show last week. And Varner knew it, especially once Zeke — a new friend — told him frankly that his chances weren’t looking good.
Survivor contestants usually try to pull a few Hail Marys once they realize they’re circling the drain. But for Varner, feeling the pinch of possible elimination, that apparently involved any strategy he could come up with to torpedo Zeke’s ironclad alliance with the rest of the tribe.
“Zeke’s not being truthful,” Varner insisted to the camera. “I know something about Zeke that none of them know. ... This is not the guy you think he is.”
It sounds like typical Survivor talk. But these statements take on a whole new, and horrifying, context in light of what Varner did at Tribal Council. After his first pitch to make everyone turn on a fellow tribe member flopped, he said, “There’s more.” He then turned to Zeke and said, point blank, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
“What I’m showing here,” Varner continued as Zeke and his teammates blinked, “is a deception.”
Zeke, in a remarkably candid piece for the Hollywood Reporter, writes that he was too shocked to react at first. He and the Survivor producers had apparently talked about the possibility that him being transgender might come up, but according to Survivor host and producer Jeff Probst, they agreed that “if his story was to be told, he would be the one to decide when, where, and how.”
(For those wondering if this episode falls into that category, it’s not clear if Zeke would have — or could have — preferred to keep this episode off the air. According to GLAAD, its Transgender Media Program worked with CBS and Zeke “for several months to ensure that when the episode aired, Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience.”)
A longtime Survivor obsessive, Zeke wrote for THR that he just wanted the chance to play as Zeke, a guy with a knack for strategy and thinking three steps ahead. “I didn’t discuss my trans status in my initial [audition] video,” he writes, “because I wanted the show to desire me as a game player and an eccentric storyteller, not as ‘The First Trans Survivor Player.’”
The show seemed to respect that — but one of its contestants didn’t.
And now, a quick reminder of why calling trans people “deceptive” is such a dangerous thing to do
As Zeke’s teammates rose up to call out Varner during Tribal Council (more on that in a minute), Debbie Wanner declared that Zeke not disclosing that he’s transgender “isn’t deceiving us strategically in a game.”
And in a reply I hope Varner truly regrets, he doubled down by insisting that it “reveals the ability to deceive.”
Let’s be very clear: Saying that trans people are inherently deceptive feeds into one of the most poisonous misconceptions about what it means to be transgender. It paints trans people as liars who are willfully misleading innocents astray, when they’re just people trying to live their lives. It invalidates their identities and experiences in a way that makes them more vulnerable to discrimination and assault.
It is, in other words, an extraordinarily shitty thing to do to someone, even if you don’t consider him a friend, as Varner appeared to think of Zeke.
By all accounts, Varner deeply regrets what he did. And Zeke has acknowledged that he can forgive Varner’s mistake. But he also admits that he probably can’t forget the toxicity of Varner’s words. As he wrote for THR:
In proclaiming “Zeke is not the guy you think he is” and that “there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,” Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives.
In fact, as Zeke put it to People, Varner’s entire strategy hinged on painting trans people as liars. “That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me because it’s the same one used to discriminate against, attack and murder trans people,” Zeke said. “What’s great is that nobody bought it.”
If there’s anything encouraging about this disaster, it’s what Zeke and his competitors did next
In the moments after Varner outed Zeke, everyone else who was present — including host Jeff Probst — was taken aback. They were not, however, confused.
In a swarm of immediate and furious disgust, a few phrases kept jumping out: “You didn’t have to do that.” “That’s personal.” “That’s wrong of you to do that.”
Immediately, what could have been nothing more than a cruel televised outing became something else entirely: an unequivocal shutdown of unfounded anti-trans rhetoric on national television, and on a landmark network reality show at that.
Varner, scrambling, first defended his reasoning with the aforementioned “ability to deceive” nonsense, only to have Probst fire back that Varner was taking “a giant leap of logic.” When Varner then tried to save face by reminding everyone he was just trying to win a million dollars, contestant Tai Trang exclaimed in horror, “[By] outing somebody?!”
Nothing Varner tried could get anyone around him to mince words. Fan favorite Ozzy Lusth — who’s now on his fourth round of Survivor with Game Changers — told Varner he should be “ashamed ... of what [he’s] willing to do,” adding that he was “playing with people’s lives at this point.”
Eventually, Varner began to fall all over himself apologizing, saying he thought Zeke was “out and loud and proud.” But Varner and Zeke’s teammate Sarah Lacina wasn’t buying it, delivering a truly impressive eye roll and calling Varner’s tactic “a malicious attack.” She then stumbled into a moment that took even her by surprise. “I’m from the Midwest,” she said. “I come from a very conservative background, so it’s not very diverse ... [and] the fact that I can love this guy so much, and it doesn’t change anything for me, makes me realize that I’ve grown huge as a person.”
To be honest — and a little depressing — the speed and ferocity of these responses were almost as surprising to me as the outing itself. Everyone immediately seemed to recognize that Varner had screwed up; everyone immediately jumped to Zeke’s defense.
In fact, when it was time to vote, Probst didn’t even bother going through with the ceremony of it all. He just called up Varner to snuff out his torch, and that was that. For Varner, and for millions of viewers, the message was clear: Survivor might be a cutthroat game, but he had still managed to cross an unacceptable line.
Zeke, for his part, was as composed as his teammates were incensed. He explained that he’d chosen not to divulge this part of his life because “when people know that about you ... it sort of overwhelms everything else that they know about you.”
But he steeled his jaw and continued, saying he knew there was always a risk that something like this might happen and that he’s prepared to handle whatever comes next. “It’s kind of crappy the way it’s happened,” he said, “but if ‘metamorphosis’ is the word of the episode ... I am a changed, stronger, better man today.”
No one can argue with that statement. Zeke has impressed everyone from his teammates to viewers to Probst with his daring and generosity. That he managed to respond to such offhand cruelty with firm resolve and even grace speaks to the extraordinary strength of character his teammates leaped to defend. This one moment won’t — and shouldn’t — define him.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays at 8 pm on CBS.