Survivor has been around for 34 seasons now, and for whatever reason the last few times around have been full of players more skilled in “the game” than we’ve really seen in a long time. This season is called “Game Changers,” and it’s been largely true, with even more than the usual crop of blindsides. With all that drama, no-one was really prepared for the unbelievable exchange which happened during Tribal Council.
With the Nuku tribe going to Tribal, there were the regular alliances and plots being hatched, but it was clear through most of the episode that Jeff Varner was going to be getting the heave-ho from his tribemates and voted off the island. In desperation during the discussion in front of host Jeff Probst, he spoke about how everyone was capable of deceit (which is a true enough statement with regards to any experienced Survivor player). To punctuate his point he turned to fellow tribemate Zeke Smith and asked him, “why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
Now, Zeke has been on Survivor for more than 50 days across two seasons and it’s never been brought up once as a topic. He hadn’t revealed that aspect to anyone else, it’s been entirely a private aspect to Zeke. Now, on national television, off the cuff, Varner forever cast himself on the “missing the point” train by insisting that he was bringing it up to highlight that Zeke was capable of deception.
Zeke sat quietly, the cat out of the bag, his normally jovial face completely different – now showing some very deep and personal emotions that I cannot (especially as a hetero individual) even begin to imagine. While Varner’s actions and comments were shocking in and of themselves (it’s rare to see Probst looking at a relative loss for words), what was heartening was that every one of Zeke’s tribemates immediately came to his defense.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Andrea. “Nobody has the right to out anybody,” normally quiet and retiring Tai demanded.
Every person pushed back that Varner had gone completely and utterly over the line. Varner tried to insist that “I’m a big supporter of trans rights,” which genuinely sounded just like any ol’ white guy using the “I’m not racist because I have black friends” card.
It seems that Varner really didn’t know that the fact wasn’t common knowledge. Perhaps that is what he really believed, perhaps it wasn’t. It was his equating someone’s being trans to it being a sign of an innate ability to be deceitful that thew him even further beyond the line. When all was said and done, rather than going to the normal private voting process, Probst simply went around to every player asking them – “are you voting for Varner [to be voted out]?” They all said or nodded yes. Probst just nodded, “we don’t need to vote, Varner, grab your torch.”
And with that, he was gone. What was left in it’s place was hurt, but also a certain sense of pride that the others stood up for Zeke so strongly. Also Zeke himself, he had spoken at length about how he had really liked Varner and didn’t think that he would out him in such a way.
Nick Adams, Director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program released a statement after the episode aired:
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. It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are.
In an interview with People, Smith said:
When you tell people you’re trans, you get two reactions: Either they look at you funny and pull back, or they go, ‘Aww, that must be so hard.’ I’m a goofy, fun-loving guy, so neither of those reactions work well for me.
Smith said he was shell-shocked when Varner outed him at Tribal:
I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent. That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me because it’s the same one used to discriminate against, attack and murder trans people. What’s great is that nobody bought it. It’s important people see he lost that fight, the message should be clear that hate will always lose.
In 34 seasons, there’s been those fleeting moments of genuine human drama, but this will stand out among them. Not only was it a shocking display of ignorance on the part of one person, but a hopeful response of others standing firm and saying that it was wrong.
After the episode aired, Varner took to his instagram account to endeavor apologize, it will be interesting to see how to conversation goes at the end of the season when the contestants will come face to face once again after the winner of season 34 is revealed.