Fellow contestant Jeff Varner outed Smith during a tribal council meeting, when the players vote on which contestant will leave the game next. During the meeting, Varner said, “There is deception here,” then, addressing host Jeff Probst, continued, “deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t understand.” He then turned to Smith and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” While Smith remained stunned and silent, the other contestants decried Varner’s comments and ultimately voted him off the island.
The moment immediately caused an uproar among fans and critics, while LGBTQ groups, Smith, Probst and others responded as well. Much of the outrage focused on Varner’s actions, his invasion of Smith’s privacy and the trauma of a public outing. Some also blamed CBS, which filmed the episode months ago and could have edited the segment out, but decided to air it anyway.
In an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, Smith touched on multiple topics, including how Survivor helped him through a period of deep depression and his transition, and the ways he has struggled with how, when, or if, to disclose his gender history to those close to him. He also spoke about his relationship with Varner on Survivor and recalled the events leading up to the tribal council.
“In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder,” Smith wrote. “In proclaiming ‘Zeke is not the guy you think he is’ and that ‘there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,’ Varner 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.”
Nick Adams, the director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media program, echoed Smith’s sentiment in a 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,” he said. “It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe.”
Varner, for his part, apologized to Smith after the tribal council meeting, and posted another apology on social media after the episode aired. “Let me be clear, outing someone is assault,” he said. “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. I am profoundly sorry. Zeke is a wonderful man and I will forever be amazed and inspired by his forgiveness and compassion.”
In his op-ed, Smith acknowledged Varner’s apology, writing, “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.”