First trans Survivor contestant outed on national television

On the April 12 episode of Survivor: Game Changers, castaway Zeke Smith was outed as the show’s first transgender contestant by another contestant, Jeff Varner.

Varner, himself an openly gay man, assessed that Smith was transgender and revealed the information at an emotional tribal council. He entered the tribal as the target of elimination. According to Varner’s exit press, Smith’s ally Ozzy Lusth told Varner earlier in the day about a secret alliance between Smith, Andrea Boehlke, and himself. Varner intended to expose this alliance to the other competitors in hopes that it would keep him in the game. He had also entered Game Changers with the goal of making it to jury—which he had failed to do in his previous two attempts—and was one tribal council away from achieving this goal. The result was a desperate attempt to prove Smith’s deception which led to Varner asking, “why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

Smith’s fellow tribemates immediately jumped to his defense, condemning Varner’s actions. Debbie Wanner was the first to speak up, while Sarah Lacina called the act “malicious.” The tribe held an unprecedented public vote where Varner was unanimously voted out. “I really, really like the people that I’m playing with,” Smith said in the following episode. “It’s heartening in this game that [at] your lowest moment…people who are out to get you in some regard do stand in your defense… I was truly touched.”

Though some fans discovered Smith’s transition through a deleted Harvard Crimson profile, many were shocked by the news. The show brought back previous “game-changing” contestants from past seasons to celebrate the show’s thirty-fourth season and five hundredth episode. Survivor films its biannual seasons back-to-back. Smith’s first season, Millennials vs. Gen-X was filmed from April 4 to May 12 of 2016. Less than a month later, Smith was sent back to the Fiji to participate in Game Changers, which began filming on June 6, 2016. Millennials vs. Gen-X did not air until later that fall, meaning that Smith, along with fellow contestant Michaela Bradshaw, was unknown to his Game Changers competitors. Varner incorrectly assumed Smith had been open with Survivor production and the audience about his status as a transgender male. “I think it was a logical assumption to make, as wrong as I was,” Varner said on the Survivor Facebook page’s aftershow “Beyond the Buff.”

Smith did not want people to know about his past because he did not want it to take over his Survivor experience. “I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player,” he said during tribal council. “I wanted to be Zeke, the Survivor player.”

Smith worked alongside CBS in the following months to ensure the outing was handled in a way that made him feel comfortable. CBS even allowed him to write a personal blog post for The Hollywood Reporter where he explained his thoughts about the incident and the dialogue surrounding transgender people. “In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people,” he wrote in the blog. “[He] 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.”

Varner issued a statement of apology, stating, “outing someone is assault.”

“I have opened Zeke’s life up to discrimination and to hate and to danger and to crime and to all the horrible stuff that we as an awful society do to these people and that’s just a nightmare to live with and it’s just horrible,” Varner told Survivor podcast, Rob Has a Podcast. “My focus is 100 percent on Zeke and his safety.”

After being voted out, Varner did not participate in the entire pre-jury vacation trip. He was instead sent to therapy to help his post-show depression and suicidal thoughts. These feelings and thoughts have allegedly continued through the episode’s broadcast. He also lost his job as a real estate broker after the episode aired.

Both Varner and Smith hope that some good emerges from the incident. However, Smith also hopes to move past it and focus, instead, on the game. “There’s still a task at hand, a task that I’m rather committed to,” he said in the following episode. “I’m here to play Survivor. I’m here to win a million dollars. So, let’s just get back to it.”

Smith currently sits in the final 10 of Survivor: Game Changers. To watch Smith and the rest of the castaways compete, tune into Survivor, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS and CBS All-Access.