During Wednesday’s episode of Survivor: Game Changers, Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by fellow contestant Jeff Varner during an emotional tribal council. “There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand,” Varner told his teammates and host Jeff Probst before turning to Smith and in a gross attempt to paint him as untrustworthy, asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
The 29-year-old Smith, who first appeared on the long-running CBS reality series during the Millennials vs. Gen X season in 2016, told People, “I didn’t want to be the ‘first transgender Survivor contestant’… 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. I just wanted to be known for my game.” He added that during and after his transition, “my confidence was obliterated, and I was afraid to dream. I realized I needed to take on a big challenge to become the man I wanted to be. For some reason, that was Survivor.”
The other contestants quickly retaliated against Varner’s rash decision. “You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea Boehlke protested, while Tai Trang added, “Nobody has the right to out anybody.” Smith praised the other players for showing “hate will always lose” — Varner, who said he would “never say or do anything to hurt anyone here,” was unanimously voted off the show.
The episode was filmed eight months ago, and Smith is still trying to forgive his island castmate. “It’s tough with Varner,” he said. “I don’t think he hates trans people. I just think he has a lot of misconceptions about trans people. I think if he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go.”
Smith continued, “I think the hardest part is that if he was just some ignorant bigot, you could just write him off, but he’s not. He knows better. I think because he’s gay, people give his words a little more weight and I don’t know if he believes what he said — but he definitely hoped others would.”
Varner has since apologized on Twitter.
Some Survivor viewers aren’t ready to hear it, though.
Following the episode, Nick Adams, the director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, released this statement: “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.”