Matthew Gilbert

Outing of a trans ‘Survivor’ contestant generates heat — and light

Zeke Smith (second from right) with “Survivor” contestants (from left) Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, and Debbie Wanner during the show’s weekly tribal council gathering.
Jeffrey Neira/CBS via AP
Zeke Smith (second from right) with “Survivor” contestants (from left) Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, and Debbie Wanner during the show’s weekly tribal council gathering.

It’s been a while since CBS’s “Survivor” had much resonance in our culture. But last night, the show — now in its 34th season — stumbled into a timely issue, and provided 15 minutes of emotional, provocative, and enlightening TV.

During the weekly tribal council scene, contestant Jeff Varner revealed to the other players that rival Zeke Smith is transgender. Varner was trying to help his own chances in the game by demonizing two-time “Survivor” contestant Smith over his decision to keep his gender history private. “There is deception here,” Varner began, and then asked Smith, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

The tide turned on Varner instantly, as the other remaining players passionately criticized him for the outing. He lost in his effort to make being trans into some kind of deception. Even Varner himself quickly saw the error of his ways, saying, “I can’t believe I did that.” After some debate, filled with Varner’s apologies, Varner was voted off the show.


One interesting twist to this drama is that Varner is gay. But coming out as gay and coming out as trans are extremely different issues — a fact that many viewers may not have understood before the episode. In an essay for the Hollywood Reporter, Smith explained that important distinction between the LGB community and the T community: “Many gay people consider coming out a moment of liberation, because sharing their sexual orientation with the world causes them to be seen more authentically. Often, the opposite is true for trans people. When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically — doubting, probing or denying our identities.”

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Varner agrees: On social media last night, he apologized profusely, saying, “outing someone is assault” and owning responsibility for “what is the worst decision of my life.”

Show host Jeff Probst also criticized Varner’s behavior in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “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.”

Since the episode, a number of people — including the author of a Jezebel piece — have been critical of CBS for deciding to air the tribal council at all. GLAAD has said in a statement that it “worked with Zeke Smith and CBS for several months to ensure that when the episode aired Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience,” but still, it’s not clear whether Smith could have insisted that CBS edit out his personal information entirely.

“I’m not ashamed of being trans,” Smith told People magazine, “but I didn’t want that to be my story. I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game.”


In a lighthearted tweet, Smith made it clear he has kept his sense of humor — and maybe his sense of symbolism, too. He wrote, “Fun fact: My fly was down the entire time. #Survivor.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.9