One of the most outrageous and gut-wrenching tribal councils took place this week on CBS’s Survivor. Back for its 34th Season, this year’s competition is aptly named Survivor: Game Changers, as this game has since been changed forever by the actions of Jeff Varner, the reactions of the cast, and the strength of Zeke Smith. This week, Zeke Smith was outed as a trans man by fellow castmate Jeff Varner for the whole world to see without his consent and without any warning.
Varner was in the process of negotiating for his future on Survivor. Having been told he would be voted out that night, he was emphatically arguing how the deception and secret alliances made among certain players in the tribe should actually earn him safety, and pointed out that the tribe would be better off voting out Ozzy, a player who has now made it into the final merge 4 times on the show. The thing is, Varner seemed to actually be changing some minds and getting some support, and his plan could’ve worked should he have stopped right there. But to further cement his point about deception, like a door-to-door salesman, he decided to reveal his “but, wait, that’s not all!” He turns to Zeke and asks aloud, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
It was a moment that left all stunned. The camera panned to Zeke’s face, and you can just see the shock, and the fear. He kept still the whole time, but in his eyes, you could see the violence that was just inflicted on him by Varner’s actions. As a viewer, I was shocked and disgusted at the same time. I wanted to cry and I wanted to throw up. But as a trans person, myself, I was just like Zeke– glued to my seat in my emotions waiting to see how everyone else would react to assess the danger. Because that’s the reality of being trans in this life. We don’t have the luxury of always being able to react or stand up for ourselves, or even own who we are. We have to control ourselves, we have to wait, because the threat could be towards our very lives in the very next moment.
But as the seconds trickle by and the screen rests on the faces of Zeke’s fellow tribe members, I’m filled with a very special kind of relief. Not one that eases any emotion I’m having, but relief that comes in moments when you’re not expecting support; when you’re so used to a certain reaction, that you’ve already tensed your body to numb the pain, so that when nothing comes, that pain is let in. Everyone on this show surprised me. Every one of them were as angry and shocked and horrified as I was. And they let this asshat have it.
Shouting erupted. “That is so wrong!” “You didn’t have to do that!” “What is wrong with you?!” Varner stuck to his guns, shouting back that Zeke’s transness was evidence to this plague of deception, while others were arguing through their tears that Zeke being trans has nothing to do with the game and that it is a personal matter that should’ve been shared on Zeke’s terms.To which they are absolutely right.
Varner was playing into an age-old trope of falseness and deception applied to trans-folk. This ideology is most often used as validation for the violence and murder of trans people. By painting a trans person as deceptive because they do not tell you they are trans is odious and malicious. A trans person is not masquerading. Trans folk are not trying to trick anyone by pretending to be someone they are not. A trans man is not a woman in disguise, and vice versa. A trans man is a man, and as a man– as a person, they are showing you their truest selves. Because Varner thought this a valid argument to use, he was actually revealing to the world how he and countless others view transness: as fake.
He went on to defend himself, and claimed that he “argue[s] for the rights of transgender people every day in the state of North Carolina” and that he “would never say or do anything to hurt anyone here.” Well bully for you, Varner, you’re full of crap. If you knew anything–ANYTHING– about trans people, you would know that outing someone without their consent is one of the most violent things you could ever do, especially on a broadcasted television show that reaches millions of people. There are people in this world that murder people for being trans. There are people in this world that will discriminate and take away opportunities for being trans. Varner couldn’t take his head out of his ass long enough to consider the gravity of the situation– that he just endangered Zeke’s future– possibly even his life.
His fellow tribe members still in outrage, and Zeke stock still in silence, Varner turned to the only person who hadn’t yet spoken: the host and executive producer of the show, Jeff Probst. He addresses Probst and pleads his case that he’s arguing for his life here, and must therefore pull all the stops. What I see, and what I hope others see, is a white man looking to another white man to back him up as he equates his own needs and situation over that of a trans person’s. His own intentions, to win money and save his own skin, outweighed any thought towards his outing Zeke, to which he refuted he hadn’t done so at all. Afterwhich we hear Zeke’s first words: “Two seasons I’ve been on Survivor, and I’ve never told anybody.”
Jeff Probst handled the situation better than I ever would’ve expected a white, male, mainstream television host to act. If anything, I think he was the harshest out of all present on Varner, not to say that it wasn’t appropriate or deserved, because it 1000% was. As much as Varner attempted to backtrack, apologize, and defend his desperation, Probst called him out on it in a way that made me want to give him the biggest high five. While Varner was focused on how badly the reaction to his actions was making him feel, and expressed his desire to not be made out to be someone he’s not, Probst repeatedly attempted to give this guy a wake up call.
Zeke revealed that he had been prepared should his being trans should ever come out. He was calm, collected, and told Probst that he was out at home, but never wanted his identity on Survivor to be “the trans Survivor player”. He wanted to remain “Zeke, the Survivor player”. His anger never showed, and he gave a speech with such grace that the Survivor host’s face glowed like a proud father’s. By the end of it, he was willing to shrug his shoulders, and say that he was fine. Herein lying another painful act of strength to watch unfold. Queer and trans people have to do it too often: Always having to give comfort instead of taking space to hold people accountable for their pain.
Whether it’s someone struggling with getting pronouns right, or –let’s be honest– some white person feeling “so bad” for being ignorant or for inflicting pain on a person of a marginalized identity, queer and trans people have to stomach this sort of this every day and train themselves to internalize it, and give comfort instead. I’m sure if Zeke had a dollar for every “It’s ok, man” he’s had to give, he wouldn’t even need to compete on Survivor for money. And it’s ridiculous that it’s not something people recognize. As an ally, as a person– if you mess up, that is on you. Be mindful of what your reaction to your own actions requires from others. The amount of emotional labor and support queer folks give to those who hurt them in the first place is enormous, and yes, it shows the strength of our community, but it also normalizes the internalization of our pain and minimizes the violence and repercussions of that pain to the world around us.
Even 10 months later, Zeke Smith showed strength in the face of the global reveal of this moment. CBS, Probst, and Smith have worked closely together over the past 10 months to edit and decide how best to air this week’s episode on global television. In the preparation of its airing, Zeke guest published an article in the Hollywood Reporter just before the episode went live. Twitter blew up under the hashtag #Survivor with all sorts of different reactions to this historic, “game changing” tribal council. One calling it the lowest moment ever witnessed on the show.
This episode ended with Probst leading an unconventionally-styled vote (which I personally feel was the right call). Instead of moving for the tribe members to write down their votes individually as they do on every episode, Probst asked them all aloud if they agreed that Varner should be the one to go home. It was unanimous, as was the support and love these cast-members performed for their friend and teammate, Zeke Smith.
It was moving and incredible to watch as people from so many different backgrounds had such a human root to their empathy. It was inspiring to watch a trans man deal with being globally outed so maliciously with such grace. And it will never be forgotten how this all played out on television in front of the eyes of millions of viewers. Hopefully what transpired that night at tribal will reach even a fraction of those “tribes” at home, and bring empathy, respect, and love back into our hearts.
Watch the episode here.