“Survivor: Game Changers” contestant Zeke Smith was outed as transgender in the most public way possible — on primetime TV.
In a Hail Mary move to save his own skin on the CBS reality competition on Wednesday night, fellow contestant Jeff Varner told the rest of the tribe that “there was deception here,” before turning to Smith and asking, “Why haven’t you told anyone here that you’re transgender?”
While Smith remained quiet in the wake of the revelation from his former confidante, Varner tried to save face by arguing $1 million was at stake. “I’m gonna beat myself up over this,” he added, before sitting for the rest of the Council with his head between his hands.
Smith, a 29-year-old Brooklyn-based asset manager, hadn’t planned to come out on the show as he “didn’t want to be the ‘first transgender ‘Survivor’ contestant,” he told the new issue of People magazine. “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.”
Before Wednesday’s episode aired, Nick Adams, Director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, said in a statement to TheWrap: “Tonight’s episode of CBS’ ‘Survivor’ was gut-wrenching. CBS looked at the consequences of outing a transgender person against his will.
“At Tribal Council, contestant Jeff Varner told his tribemates that fellow contestant Zeke Smith is a transgender man. Zeke Smith played in the previous season ‘Millennials vs. Gen X’ before being brought back immediately for the current season ‘Game Changers.’ During both seasons, Zeke has played as an out gay man, but chose not to disclose his gender history to his tribemates or to the viewing audience,” Adams explained.
“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,” the statement concluded.
Having been raised in Oklahoma, Smith transitioned when he was a student at Harvard, and has credited “Survivor” for giving him strength. “I realized I need to take on a big challenge to become the man I wanted to be,” he said.
Viewers on Twitter were quick to both criticize Varner for outing Zeke and to pledge their support for Smith.
“Jeff Varner just made Pepsi and United Airlines look like angels,” one Twitter user wrote.
“That tribal council was horrifying and triumphant and devastating and beautiful. I never want to watch it again,” said another.
— Bennett Weckler (@BennettWeckler) April 13, 2017
— Kristin (@KristinWick) April 13, 2017
— Derek Lopez (@DerekL44) April 13, 2017
— Jeff Probst (@JeffProbst) April 13, 2017
— Audrey Middleton (@OddreyM) April 13, 2017
#Survivor So that dude is horrible for saying that on national tv, yet it's pre recorded. They didn't have to air that part. Publicity stunt
— Zach Swartz (@zacatak31) April 13, 2017
— Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) April 13, 2017
— Jaclyn & Marcella (@cityofthefeels) April 13, 2017
that was literally the dirtiest attempt at a game move in all of reality game show history #Survivor
— Kayla Bouchard (@kaybouchard) April 13, 2017
That tribal council was horrifying and triumphant and devastating and beautiful. I never want to watch it again. #Survivor
— Andy Herren (@AndyHerren) April 13, 2017
The worst thing to do is pour hatred towards Varner, he's a genuine person who made a terrible decision. Focus on Zeke's courage #Survivor
— Nick (@NickM05ca) April 13, 2017
That was the most uncomfortable tribal ever! #Survivor I don't ever remember crying during tribal council before.
— April Allala (@aprilcsnm) April 13, 2017