Survivor history was made on the latest episode of Survivor: Game Changer, but it was not an occasion for celebration. Contestant Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by his teammate, Jeff Varner, and while it ultimately led to Varner begin voted off the island, the moment was a shock to everyone’s system when it happened.
During an intense and instructive tribal council, Varner attempted to save his own skin by portraying Smith as a man capable of deception. While illustrating to the rest of his team and Survivor host Jeff Probst that there was an alliance on the team to oust him, Varner made a low blow on national television. “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?,” he asked Smith.
While Smith sat there, quiet and appearing stunned, the entire team turned around to Varner and began to admonish him. There was a uniform rejection of Varner’s attempt to pain Smith as deceptive and everyone leapt to Smith’s defense. It’s truly a stunning and saddening moment to witness.
As Probst discussed what happened — he definitely wasn’t going to let Varner’s comments slide — Smith was able to speak his piece. “I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player,” Smith told Probst, discussing that that aspect of his identity has previously colored his relationships with people to the point that that was all they saw; he didn’t want that to be the case on Survivor.
For Varner, despite his attempts to damage control, he was ousted from the competition by Probst. For Smith, this was a deeply personal moment and hopefully he was able to gather some comfort from the unified, supportive reaction of his teammates.
Smith penned a deeply personal column about his experience for The Hollywood Reporter. Discussing his transition, his love of Survivor, and what that deeply troubling moment taught him, Smith was able to turn a tragedy into a triumph. It’s a eye-opening and necessary testimony on the experience but also gives us a better look at one man’s journey in a very unique set of shoes.
“I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes. Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics,” Smith wrote.
The ultimate takeaway? “But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.”
Being outed should have never happened to Smith and, as his teammates rightfully pointed out on the show, Smith should have had the space to choose when to disclose that information if he ever wanted to disclose it at all. This moment will no doubt become a major event in Survivor history, but let’s hope it’s also deeply instructive for everyone watching.
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