By Laura Bradley. Photos: Courtesy of CBS.
Wednesday’s installment of Survivor brought an unexpectedly intense moment, when Jeff Varner outed fellow Nuku tribe member Zeke Smith in a desperate play to avoid getting voted off the island. (As Varner himself said on air, “I’m just trying everything that I can.”) The rest of the contestants, along with host Jeff Probst, called Varner out almost immediately for saying that Smith competing on the show without revealing his gender identity “reveals the ability to deceive.” Once he regained his composure, Zeke responded: “I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke, the Survivor player.” His fellow tribe members affirmed that that was precisely what he was to them—and now, Zeke, Probst, and Varner have all offered longer breakdowns of what exactly happened.
During the episode, as Varner started to backtrack—apparently reeling from the realization of what he had just done—Probst wouldn’t hear of it: “You can’t unring the bell.” Varner—an out gay man—claimed that he had only revealed Smith’s gender identity because he thought Smith “was out and proud and loud about it.” But Probst pressed him: “Jeff, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that on one hand that ‘The reason I’m telling people is to prove that he’s capable of deception,’ and then immediately say, ‘He was out and proud of it.’ Both can’t exist.”
Probst usually avoids commenting on what players say or do in the game, but his opinion of Varner’s decision on Wednesday night was pretty easy to discern—and in case there was any doubt, Probst’s explanation of the moment to Entertainment Weekly made it even clearer.
“I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was O.K. on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line,” Probst told E.W. “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.”
Varner issued an even stronger apology to Smith on Twitter Wednesday night, writing, “I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew. I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life. Let me be clear, outing someone is assault. 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.”
And Zeke, who throughout all of this did, indeed, prove to be incredibly strong and courageous, penned an essay for The Hollywood Reporter—opening up not only about his gender identity and how Survivor played into his identity, but also expanding on how the treatment of a trans person tends to change once people learn that person’s gender history:
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. Keeping your gender history private is not the same as a gay person being “in the closet.” The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends.
There’s no playbook for being trans. You make it up as you go along, and I struggled with finding the right time to disclose my gender history to those close to me. What was appropriate? A week? A month? My gut would tell me to fill someone in, but then panic would wash over me. What if that person told other people?
My biggest concern was that if people knew, their opinion of me would change. I feared if I let anyone too close, they’d smell my stench and not want to be my friend anymore. Better to have acquaintances than no one at all. So I held them at arm’s length.
Honestly, I held the world at arm’s length. I came to fear discomfort and risk taking on the off chance that I might fail again. I never resumed leaping. I followed the path of least resistance, telling myself I would amount to something someday, just not today. Until one day I realized that if the somedays didn’t start becoming todays, I’d run out of days.
If the first chapter of the Zeke book of my life is about rebuilding from failure, I was well rebuilt. However, the structure’s sturdiness needed to be tested, because until it was, I would never definitively know if I was the man I believed myself to be. On a hot night in the summer of 2015, I pondered what this test might be. The answer appeared instantly, for it had been the constant in this chapter: Survivor.
Zeke explained that he had started watching the reality competition during a rough period in his life, when he was transitioning and also battling with depression. “Transitioning created the opportunity to remake myself—to really consider and construct the man I wanted to be,” Smith wrote. “Whether I was conscious of it or not, ‘Survivor player’ became part of the remodel blue prints.”
As for what happened on Wednesday’s episode, Smith noted that Varner’s accusation that he is “deceptive” for not telling his fellow tribe members about his gender history “invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder.”
“I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom,” Smith wrote. “For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes. Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is.”
This story originally appeared on Vanity Fair.
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