Three Years Later, ‘Survivor’ Star Zeke Smith Addresses Being Outed On Television

Fans of Survivor were shocked in 2017 when one castaway decided to share an incredibly personal piece of information about a fellow competitor. When Zeke Smith shared the fact that he’s transgender with fellow castaway Jeff Varner, Smith surely expected them to keep it quiet. Unfortunately, Jeff Varner decided to try and use the secret as ammo against Smith during a tribal council. Suffice it to say, Smith, Probst, and Varner’s fellow castaways were utterly shocked at his behavior. Now, three years later, Smith is dishing on the event once more.

Jeff Probst chimes in on the incident 

Jeff Probst of Survivor
Jeff Probst of Survivor | CBS via Getty Images

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Back when the infamous Survivor moment went down, Jeff Probst was just as shocked as the other castaways by Jeff Varner’s behavior. 

At the time, Zeke Smith’s fellow castaways rallied in his defense, calling out Varner for what he did as soon as it went down. Of the moment, Probst told EW, “In 34 seasons of Survivor, I have rarely, if ever, personally commented on what is said or done in the game. But this is a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries. 

He added, “I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line. I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel. You just don’t do that to someone.”

Probst went on to explain that the moment was surreal. He told EW, “Witnessing that moment was so powerful because from my seat at Tribal, I could see it all. Varner was in the middle being attacked by angry tribemates while Zeke sat in the corner, outside of the action in what appeared to be a mild state of shock. It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever encountered on the show. From the outside, it looked and sounded like a regular Tribal Council but in reality, it was one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on Survivor.”

Why Zeke Smith wanted it to air on ‘Survivor’

Sandra Diaz-Twine, Sarah Lacina, Tai Trang, Jeff Varner, Zeke Smith and Oscar "Ozzy" Lusth of Survivor
Sandra Diaz-Twine, Sarah Lacina, Tai Trang, Jeff Varner, Zeke Smith, and Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth of Survivor| Jeffrey Neira/CBS via Getty Images

Despite the obvious betrayal and pain of the moment, Zeke Smith decided he wanted the incident to air on Survivor. At the time, many fans weren’t sure that Probst and CBS made the right call by airing the moment, but Smith thinks it was the correct move. 

Zeke told Hollywood Reporter, “I very much wanted it to air. First, I didn’t go on national television unprepared for the world to know that I’m trans. I was ready, should that part of my life become part of my Survivor story. But I wasn’t crazy about the way it happened. It never crossed my mind that it shouldn’t air. Ever since it happened, I felt it was important for the world to see. The way my tribe mates reacted, and the way Jeff Probst reacted, is a case study in how you should respond to injustice.”

Smith added, “It also marks a moment in the way trans people are accepted in this country, that everyone knew what he did was wrong, immediately. Even people who aren’t well-versed in trans issues, like Sarah Lacina, knew what he did was wrong. They overwhelmingly rebuffed his actions. That was important for the world to see.”

Zeke Smith addresses the moment three years later

Zeke Smith
Zeke Smith | Greg Doherty/Getty Images

Now, three years after Zeke Smith was outed to the world by Jeff Varner, the Survivor star is revisiting the event and its impact on his life. 

Upon further reflection, Smith has begun to wonder if the positive reaction he received from viewers and fellow castaways might have been different if he weren’t a white male. During an episode of Rob Has a Podcast Smith said, “I wonder if my story would have had the same impact that it had in opening people’s minds to transgender people if I were a Black trans woman. I think that not being visibly trans provided me a lot of cover in my first season. I think that if I was not white, if I was more femme presenting, if it was known that I was trans, I think I would have been the first person voted out at the millennials tribe.”

Smith added, “I think that because the show was unequivocally made through a white male lens, especially if you look historically at what we now know to be the culture of CBS, that is not a network that can have a critical look at stories outside of what they think is going to make a Midwestern mom comfortable.”