Those who watched the moment Survivor contestant Zeke Smith was outed as a transgender man on national television this week won't soon forget his expression.
As his tribe mates reacted with vocal outrage when contestant Jeff Varner outed him, Smith stayed perfectly still with wide, anxiously shifting eyes. He finally broke, scrunching his face in visible anguish, when Varner called Smith's decision not to disclose his gender history a "deception."
"I remember walking into Tribal Council that night," Smith wrote in an op-ed published in The Hollywood Reporter, immediately after the episode aired Wednesday. "I remember the smell of the kerosene in our torches. I remember the smug smirk on his face and the gleam in his eye when he turned to me and snarled, 'Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?'"
Smith said he wanted to run, but knew cameras would follow. There was no escaping that moment of being outed to his tribe — or the fact that he would be outed to millions of Survivor viewers nine months later, when the episode finally aired.
Social media users have described the moment as "sickening," "evil," and "horrifying." Some have even questioned who is truly responsible for outing Smith on a national scale, saying CBS had a choice to run the deeply personal moment — and decided to run with it for ratings. Smith, after all, said he's not "wild" about the public knowing his transgender status, preferring to be "casually trans in the same way that Zac Efron is casually Jewish."
"A person's gender history is private information and it is up to them, and only them, when, how, and to whom they choose to disclose that information," Smith wrote in THR.
But now the world does know Smith's gender history, regardless of his wishes. But he's had support and preparation to deal with the moment — and that's where GLAAD comes in.
GLAAD, the leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization, worked closely with Smith and CBS since November to make sure the moment was handled in the most sensitive way possible, and that Smith's "wishes and boundaries were respected." That included giving Smith the chance to speak to media in the immediate aftermath of the episode, even though contestants are usually barred from doing so.
"I had many, many phone calls, meetings and lunches with Smith on both coasts to just talk through some best practices for being transgender in the public eye," said Nick Adams, director of transgender media at GLAAD. "I wanted to talk to him about all of the various aspects of this, from being outed against your will in such a public way to also the understanding that this could be an educational moment."
Adams said GLAAD gave Smith tips on assumptions he might encounter, how to curb invasive questions people may ask, and other types of basic media training. It's work GLAAD often does, working with public figures like The Matrix director Lily Wachowski, who was forced to come out as transgender after a British tabloid threatened to out her in early 2016.
GLAAD has been supporting people in the public eye who come out by force, like Smith and Wachowski, and by choice for more than 30 years. The organization was founded in response to the defamatory and sensationalized media coverage of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Since then, GLAAD has helped stars like Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner come out as trans publicly, and ensure media coverage of their stories is sensitive and inclusive.
But Adams said this instance of outing is the most public outing he's seen on a broadcast network.
GLAAD has spent several decades trying to fight against the reason Varner gave for outing Smith — that, somehow, for withholding his transgender status, he is a deceptive person. The idea that trans people are "deceptive" mischaracterizes them as villainous and liars. Not only does it devalue their identities, but it puts them at incredible risk of discrimination and assault.
“I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent," Smith told People, referring to Varner. "That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me, because it's the same one used to discriminate against, attack, and murder trans people. What's great is that nobody bought it."
Adams said it was "painful" to see Varner to use that rational when outing Smith. Though the moment happened in the isolated world of reality TV, the real world implications of disclosing a transgender person's gender history can have life-altering implications. That's true for trans men like Smith, but outing under the guise of "deception" especially impacts transgender women.
"In the worst case scenario, especially when transgender women are seen as being deceptive, that can lead to violence or murder," Adams said. "Very often the defense given for those acts of violence are that the person was tricked or fooled by this transgender person, which is absolutely not true."
Image: Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment
Smith, who has been on Survivor for two seasons, competed as an out gay man, but chose not to disclose his transgender status to his tribe mates or Survivor viewers. When explaining why he chose to disclose one identity within the LGBTQ community but not another, Smith pointed to the obsession non-trans people often have with trans lives. He said often people react with pity or disgust — and that neither reaction works for him.
"I'm not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story,” Smith told People. "I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game."
Notably, Varner — the man who outed Smith — is a gay man, showing a disconnect within the LGBTQ community, and the misunderstanding of transgender identity by people with queered sexualities. Coming out experiences are not universal, especially when coming out as queer versus coming out as trans.
"Your sexual orientation is a very public thing," Adams explained. "It's about who you love. It's about who you walk down the street with holding hands. It's about who you spend the rest of your life with.
"But your gender history after you transitioned and if you have the privilege of not being immediately read as trans by others, is a private thing for many people because when you are seen as your authentic self, that's who you are. There's nothing to come out about," he said.
— Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) April 13, 2017
Viewers, then, should watch the intensely personal Survivor moment knowing that it's a moment they don't have any right to see. But, after watching, Adams said he hopes viewers listen to the reaction of Smith's tribe mates and listen to Smith's own words in the moment.
"If people see something similar to this going on in their personal life, I hope they remember of the Nuku Tribe reacted," Adams said. "I hope they will speak out and be allies to transgender people who are being treated like this."