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How ‘Survivor’ Contestant Zeke Smith Was Outed As Transgender On National Television

On Wednesday night, one of the most cruel moments in Survivor history was witnessed by more than 8 million viewers. After 34 seasons, we have watched lots of strategies be made by the players, including backstabbing and lying. But the line is crossed once a contestant’s personal life gets in the way, and that is when strategy stops being strategy and becomes pure evil.

Jeff Varner, an openly gay man from North Carolina, played the game for the third time in its Game Changers season, currently airing on CBS. When it was time to eliminate someone, as it happens every week, he knew he was very likely to go home and in an unexpected move to save himself, he said: “There is deception on levels here that these guys don’t understand.”, and then turned to fellow contestant Zeke Smith and asked him “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”. In this very moment everyone was shocked and outraged, yelling at Varner for how disrespectful he had been. Even Jeff Probst, the host of the show-who has been always been very neutral-felt the need to say something. When the man realized what he had done, he apologized, but at last he was eliminated from the game by an unanimous vote.

Over the course of yesterday, both contestants have used their platforms to explain their side of the story. Jeff Varner deeply apologized for his actions in an Instagram post. “Yep. I did that. And I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended,” the 50-year-old player wrote. “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.”

Zeke himself talked to People and had his own guest column at The Hollywood Reporter. He has said that while he is not ashamed of being transgender, he did not want to be known for it because there is much more depth to his personality and his game than his gender history. He wrote, “Something primal deep inside me screamed: run. I lost control of my body, my legs bounced up and down uncontrollably, willing me to flee, but the rest of me sat dead as stone. To my left was The Abyss. I could’ve made a clean break for it, but I knew there was no running from what had happened. Cameras would follow me, if not that night, then eventually. Running was not an option. So I sat blank, almost in a trance, unaware of what happened around me, trying to form a plan.”

“I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent. 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.”

The director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, Nick Adams, also spoke up about the issue and condemned Varner’s behavior after working for months with CBS to make sure the contestant would have the opportunity for his voice to be heard.

“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.”


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Federico Bongiorno
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Federico is a 20 year old student from Buenos Aires who loves pop culture and learning something new every day. He believes spreading information and educating is the only way to go forward as a society.

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