Trans ‘Survivor’ contestant outed on show


Zeke Smith, a contestant from the reality TV competition “Survivor,” was outed by a fellow contestant during the 10th episode of the season. // Photo courtesy of Robert Voets

Since House Bill 2 was enacted last year, North Carolina has been in the news time and time again due to the issue of transphobia, as both a producer of bigotry and a site of resistance.

On April 12, Greensboro native and reality game show contestant Jeff Varner outed fellow competitor Zeke Smith as transgender on an episode of the CBS show “Survivor.”

“There is deception here, deception on levels that these guys don’t even understand,” said Varner during a tribal elimination, where one contestant would typically be voted out of the game.

“Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” he then said directly to Smith.

Just before, Varner had stated to the group that he knew he was the one who would be voted off the island. His final moments on the show, however, sparked controversy about transphobia and ideas of trans deception.

Other contestants immediately jumped to Smith’s defense, condemning Varner for what he said. This outcry has been vocalized by many others, both transgender and cisgender, who argue the same basic point.

“For me, the bottom line is that it’s none of your business,” said sophomore Hayden Young. “If you do happen to know the business, it’s definitely not your business to share it.”

GLAAD, an organization dedicated to holding media accountable for its portrayal of LGBTQIA people, also released a statement about the outing.

“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,” said Nick Adams, the director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, in a statement.

Even the host of “Survivor,” Jeff Probst, broke his typical neutrality to have Smith’s back before sending Varner out of the game without a typical voting procedure.

“Varner, is it starting to hit you, the gravity, that you didn’t just tell six people, you told millions of people?” said Probst.

The question, however, becomes whether or not the “Survivor” producers had to air the outing. There was no precedent to guide the studio in how to handle the situation, as no one has been outed in such a public way before.

To not air the outing at all would have been almost impossible. Varner, Smith and other contestants would have been forced to pretend it had not happened, resulting in a precarious situation for everyone involved.

At the same time, the act of outing someone has potentially life ruining implications, which CBS had to consider. Recognizing this, Smith received vital support in making his story his own.

“GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program 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,” according to GLAAD’s blog.

Though “Survivor” producers tried to give Smith agency, some wonder whether they have directly benefited from transphobia.

“I’m sure from (the producers) point of view, ratings were driving their decision,” said Richie Zweigenhaft, Charles A. Dana professor of psychology. “Ratings drive advertising revenue, it’s a commercial enterprise. I doubt that they were primarily concerned with moral issues.”
While “Survivor” may be potentially profiting off of Smith’s outing, Varner certainly is not. The day after the episode aired, he was fired from a job at Allen Tate Real Estate Co. he had received only 17 days earlier.

Some people, including fellow “Survivor” contestant Hali Ford, have said that the consequences Varner faces are too severe. For others, they are seen as a necessity.

“People don’t take these kinds of things seriously unless there are material things taken away from them,” said junior Rebecca Hamilton-Levi. “Unless they lose their job or lose their scholarship when they say something very bad, nothing ever changes or happens.”

For Smith himself, the help from GLAAD has brought much positive media attention. As a guest writer for The Hollywood Reporter, Smith wrote a piece about his experience and how much he’s grown from it.

“You cannot control the hazards you face, be they repeated misfortune or the harmful actions of others,” Smith wrote. “You can only control how you respond. It’s up to you to decide whether the hazard will define you, or you will define the hazard.”