“It was as if he had been preparing for this absolutely unpredictable, completely public, and incredibly vulnerable moment for his entire life. His composure was astounding,” Probst said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Probst gave a behind-the-scenes look into the Tribal Council where contestant Jeff Varner forcibly outed Smith, specifically his perspective on Smith’s reaction, which he said impressed him despite the horror of the situation.
Smith’s gender identity was known to producers during Smith’s first season on “Survivor,” but Smith had made it clear he didn’t want it to become an issue. Probst reiterated that it should’ve been Smith’s decision if he wanted to say something.
“He wanted to be seen as a ‘Survivor’ player. Not the first transgender ‘Survivor’ player. I really respected that distinction and I understood it.”
However, in the latest Tribal Council, Varner told everybody that “there was deception here,” before turning to Smith and asking, “Why haven’t you told anyone here that you’re transgender?”
Smith responded calmly, saying that he wanted to be known as any other “Survivor” contestant, before Varner apologized and the two hugged it out.
“I was also very impressed with the compassion Zeke showed Varner,” Probst said. “I wonder if some people will say he shouldn’t have hugged him or shouldn’t have forgiven him. But as a viewer to that moment, I found his ability to still find some level of humanity for someone who had just injured him so severely, maybe his crowning moment.”
Varner issued another apology on his social media following the episode’s airing, in which he reiterated the danger of his actions.
“Outing someone is assault,” he wrote. “It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger. It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime.”
— Jeff Varner (@JEFFVARNER) April 13, 2017
The rest of the tribe reacted strongly to Varner’s statement, mostly agreeing that Smith’s gender identity was irrelevant to the game and that outing somebody against their will is just something you don’t do. Varner was sent home at the end of the episode.
“I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line,” Probst continued. “I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel. You just don’t do that to someone.”
Probst didn’t specify in the interview whether he felt it was correct for “Survivor” to out Smith, just that he was proud of the way the situation was handled.