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Despite being on the air for 33 seasons, last night’s episode of Survivor still managed to shock audiences. During an explosive tribal council, three-time castaway Jeff Varner outed fellow contestant for Zeke Smith for being a transgender man. A moment of desperation before being voted off, Varner thought this would supplement his argument that Zeke was deceptive, but it was met with an icy reception from the rest of the tribe and Jeff Probst. And while a constructive dialogue was eventually formed, the one who seemed to speak the least was Zeke himself, who sat stoic for the majority of the 20 minute scene. Now we know what he was thinking in the already infamous moment.
In response to the episode, Zeke Smith wrote a guest column for THR. It was in this piece that Smith described how it felt when Jeff Varner asked him why he hadn’t come out to his fellow castaways.
The lights magnified in brightness. The cameras, though 30 feet away, suddenly felt inches from my face. All sound faded. 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.
And anyone who tuned in to last night’s emotional episode could see that exact reaction happening. As fellow contestants broke into arguments and tears, Zeke seemed oddly still, not even turning his head to acknowledge Varner and the rest of the tribe.
Although Zeke Smith had played Survivor once before his return this season in Game Changers, his gender identity had never been addressed. Rather than possibly being a token “first trans player”, Smith wanted his game to speak for itself. And while he was out to his close family and friends, it presumably wasn’t something he wanted discussed on national television.
The outing was done by castaway Jeff Varner, who identifies as gay and his happily married, which made the scene feel especially complicated. Varner was under the assumption that Zeke was out in his everyday life, and was only keeping it from his tribe. So while he intended to out Zeke to five people at Tribal Council, it was filmed, edited, and put on national TV by CBS. Varner has since apologized profusely, and issued a statement on his personal Twitter.
While outing a queer person robs them of choice, it does seem like Jeff Varner understands the consequences of his actions. Survivor contestants are known to act out, mostly due to their starvation and mental exhaustion. Varner was fighting for his life in the game, and unfortunately he fought perhaps a bit too hard. The episode ended with the tribe unceremoniously voting him out verbally, and Jeff snuffed his torch without even allowing them to write his name down.
That being said, things remained civil during tribal (despite Probst ripping into Varner a ton), and a constructive dialogue was eventually formed between castaways and shown to millions of people.
What do you think of the debacle? Sound off in the comments below. You can watch new episodes of Survivor every Wednesday on CBS.
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