Yes, Survivor is still a show, and 13 years after its inception, millions of people still watch it. On Wednesday night, the reality show delivered a shock. During the tribal council meeting, one of the contestants, Jeff Varner, outed his tribemate Zeke Smith as transgender, suggesting this secret was indicative of his capacity for deception.
Smith is not a stranger to the show; this all-stars season is actually his second appearance in a row. But in all that time, he never felt the need to talk about his identity, so this was the first time it came up, and by being outed against his will, it came up in the ugliest way possible.
But after Varner outed Smith, everything else was just about as positive as it could be, and that’s reflected in the media storm that has followed Wednesday night’s broadcast. On the show, all of the other contestants supported Smith and were astonished that Varner would out him; it seemingly made their decision to vote Varner off that much easier.
Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross also highlighted in a thoughtful dissection of the episode how host Jeff Probst handled the situation with aplomb. “A lesser host would have pitted people against each other,” Ross wrote. Instead, Probst held Varner accountable for what he’d just done, and more importantly, he didn’t immediately turn to Smith to respond. As Ross framed it, “he allowed Zeke to compose himself.” And Probst himself said in an interview that this was “a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries,” describing it as “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on Survivor.”
Since Survivor obviously doesn’t happen in real time, Smith had already penned a response about the experience that was published after the episode aired. He described how Varner’s comment ignited his fight-or-flight reflexes. “All sound faded,” Smith recalled. “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.” He knew he couldn’t run, “so I sat blank, almost in a trance, unaware of what happened around me, trying to form a plan.”
As the show aired, Smith sent some tweets indicating he’s since made some sense of peace with what happened.
— Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) April 13, 2017
Fun fact: My fly was down the entire time. #Survivor
— Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) April 13, 2017
Varner seemed to realize even before the tribal council was over in the episode that he’d made a massive life-changing mistake by outing Smith. He also tweeted during the show Wednesday night, reiterating his apology to Smith and explaining why what he did was so wrong and how it could hurt transgender people.
— Jeff Varner (@JEFFVARNER) April 13, 2017
The reason all of these stories were ready to go as soon as the episode aired is because GLAAD worked with CBS to develop these resources so they would be available immediately. Though Smith may have had time since the show was filmed to recover and prepare himself, the outing was still news for the 8 million people who were watching Wednesday evening and the many more who learned about it from the massive social media response. That means it’s crucial to help viewers understand what was so wrong with Varner’s claim that Smith was somehow being deceptive.
Jay Wu, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told ThinkProgress that trans identities are a matter of privacy. “No trans person is obliged to disclose that they’re trans, just as people aren’t obliged to broadcast other private information,” they said. “Just as in any other situation where someone’s private information is publicly revealed without their consent, it’s a huge violation of privacy.”
In an op-ed for New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan framed this as a distinction between a “secret” and privacy:
But a trans identity isn’t a secret. It’s private. There’s a difference. Not revealing one’s private medical history doesn’t mean that someone isn’t who you think they are. Zeke Smith wasn’t hiding his identity. He just didn’t think it was anybody’s business.
Wu also noted that “when people can make the choice to keep their trans identity private, as Zeke was able to until recently, they sometimes do so to shield themselves from the potential safety risks that come with being openly trans.” NCTE’s recently-conducted U.S. Trans Survey, a study of over 27,000 transgender people, found rampant discrimination against trans people across society.
Likewise, one of the primary arguments against transgender equality is the myth that trans people are somehow a threat, particularly if they access bathrooms that match their gender identity. For some, this unsubstantiated fear builds upon a rejection of the legitimacy of transgender identities, such as the unfounded belief that trans people are mentally ill or otherwise faking their gender identities — with predatory intent. As Wu points out, “Framing privacy as ‘deception’ plays into some of the same tropes that can lead to discrimination and violence against trans people.”
Smith himself explained in his response to the episode how different this experience can be for transgender people. “Keeping your gender history private is not the same as a gay person being ‘in the closet,’” he wrote. “The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends.”
“On the whole, the world doesn’t treat trans people with much kindness. Even those who aren’t outwardly hateful crinkle their noses at you. When enough people crinkle their noses at you, you begin to think you stink.”
As for being called “deceptive,” Smith described it as “the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder.” But though Varner may have been trying to undermine Smith’s credibility, Smith sees it as an opportunity to take pride in who he is and the journey he’s taken to get there.
“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.”
As he said on the show, “One of the reasons I didn’t want to lead with that: I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player, I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player.” His tribemates assured him that he is, so hopefully viewers will continue to see him as more than just his gender identity too.