On Wednesday night’s episode of “Survivor: Game Changers” contestant Jeff Varner outed his competitor Zeke Smith as transgender in a heated Tribal Council. The outing was an attempt to pit other contestants against Zeke, but the move backfired. Other contestants immediately reacted negatively, not against Zeke, but against Varner for his inappropriate “strategy.” They responded saying: “Nobody has the right to out anybody,” and called the action a “malicious attack.” Contestant Ozzy Lusth took particular issue with Varner, telling him he should be ashamed of himself because of “what [he] is willing to do to get [himself] further in a game” and saying he was “playing with people’s lives.” In an article relating to the issue, Slate stated that Varner had “neatly linked being transgender with deceitfulness,” which has influenced situations with violence against trans people in the past.
Although Varner tried to pull back his statement, claiming that he was “not saying that transgender people are deceptive,” he was voted unanimously off the show after the incident. He tried to apologize for his misstep in his final interview, saying:
“Nobody on this planet should do what I did tonight—ever. And I am so sorry to anyone I offended, especially Zeke and his family and friends.”
Because the episode was filmed in the summer, Varner was able to formulate a full apology to release for when the incident aired, which he did over Twitter this past Wednesday. It is now pinned at the top of his profile.
— Jeff Varner (@JEFFVARNER) April 13, 2017
When Zeke applied for Survivor, he hadn’t told the producers that he was trans. During the tribal council he told others that he hadn’t wanted to be known as “Zeke the trans survivor contestant”, he just wanted to be “Zeke the survivor contestant.” After producers reached out to him about casting, he told them, but was still adamant that he didn’t want it to be a part of the show. He has played as an openly gay man on both the past season and this current season, but his being transgender had never been addressed until this week.
When he began competing Zeke had spoken with the host of the show, Jeff Probst, and they decided that it would be up to Zeke when and if he would out himself on the show. He wasn’t given this opportunity due to Varner’s actions, but he did decide to allow the clip of himself being outed to be aired. He was happy with the way his tribemates came to his defense, and along with the producers and GLAAD, they were able to handle to episode in a way that he felt comfortable with.
In a statement, GLAAD said: “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.”
Zeke wrote an essay for The Hollywood Reporter in response to the experience of being outed. The essay is worth a full read, as Zeke speaks from the heart about his life growing up transgender, joining Survivor, and his connection with Varner prior to the altercation at the Tribal Council. One section of his statement in particular sums up why Varner’s actions were so hurtful.
“In calling me deceptive,” Zeke writes, “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. 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.”
Viewers responded with overwhelming support for Zeke, and shared their reactions to the episode on social media.
I think a lot of LGBT just witnessed one of their worst fears tonight, me included. I'm still nauseous… #SurvivorGameChangers
— Monica Stevens (@acinom08) April 13, 2017
— Nick Adams (@NickGAdams) April 13, 2017
WoW!!! #SurvivorGameChangers just did something to my spirit!!! Just wow.. I'm so proud of Zeke!!
— Ms. Miller (@perilous225) April 13, 2017
The ugliest part of humanity followed by the most beautiful part. Well done Zeke #SurvivorGameChangers
— Allison Thompson (@WayToGoMom) April 13, 2017
— Jon Lundquist (@ThatDamJonGuy) April 13, 2017
The entire Tribal Council can be found below, but the relevant portion begins at 1:47