In the seventh episode of CBS’ Survivor: Game Changers, castaway Zeke Smith — returning for his second appearance in two seasons — was outed by a fellow contestant as transgender. In the following exclusive column for The Hollywood Reporter, Zeke — one of very few players in show history to compete on back-to-back seasons — shares his side of the journey, his experience as a trans man, the reasons why he pursued Survivor, the thrill of that adventure, and what it was like on the night he was outed on national television — and how he powered through it.
I’m not wild about you knowing that I’m trans. An odd sentiment, I realize, for someone who signed up for two seasons of the CBS reality giant, Survivor. See, when I got on a plane to Fiji last March, I expected to get voted out third. I’d return home, laugh at my misadventure, and go about my life, casually trans in the same way that Zac Efron is casually Jewish.
But that’s not what happened. I ended up being pretty good at Survivor. I was invited back immediately for an all-star season, during the course of which I was maliciously outed by a former local network news anchor. What a summer!
After 34 seasons, Survivor is far from the cute little social experiment it began as in the summer of 2000. Yes, castaways still sleep in the dirt and eat only what can be scrounged around the island, primarily coconut. Coconut, by the way, is a natural laxative. Deep into the 39-day adventure, players reach a crossroads where they must decide between starving or eating a handful of coconut and enduring severe gastrointestinal distress. There’s no bathroom. There’s no toilet paper. If anything needs cleaning, it gets cleaned with sand and saltwater.
But, the harsh elements merely play backdrop to a complex game of social politics dominated by secret alliances, hidden advantages and each cutthroat player’s ability to befriend and betray any who stand in their way.
The world possesses no greater test of wit and grit than Survivor … at least that’s what I believe, but I’m a pretty ridiculous individual, which is why, when seeking to radically change my life and test the depths of my manhood, I picked a reality show instead of something actually noble, like joining the Peace Corps. And it is in that same spirit of ridiculousness that I honestly tell you I would not change a single element of the story I’m about to relay, for I loved my adventure and cannot wait to embark upon the next.
Growing up, I set big lofty goals — Broadway, a high school debate championships, Harvard — and pursued them doggedly. While my peers in Oklahoma were content to follow the path set for them, I forged my own, leaping from boulder to boulder with no regard for what was expected of me. I leapt fueled solely by my belief in myself, because, well, nobody liked me very much. I leapt fearlessly, until … I crashed.
The double whammy of major depression and transitioning blasted away my confidence. The failure I experienced made me doubt everything I once believed to be true about myself. I stopped dreaming. I stopped leaping. I found it difficult enough to simply put one foot in front of the other.
This happened to be the moment in my life when I began watching Survivor.
So significant was the experience that I remember where I watched Episode 1 of Survivor: Cook Islands; I remember the date, May 2, 2010; I remember distinctly Jeff Probst’s opening line, “You are watching 20 Americans begin an adventure that will forever change their lives.” I was hooked.
Transitioning created the opportunity to remake myself — to really consider and construct the man I wanted to be. Whether I was conscious of it or not, “Survivor player” became part of the remodel blue prints. Suddenly, I found myself drawn to engage in challenging social situations, run obstacle races, and backpack the Grand Canyon. None of which were ventures I’d have chosen earlier in my life. But there was this pesky little voice in the back of my mind persistently whispering, “Survivor,” so I created these challenges — quizzes, I suppose, to acquire the fortitude necessary to play the game.
I lost many from my life when I transitioned. Most were supportive in theory, but distanced themselves, unsure and a little weirded out by the process. On the whole, the world doesn’t treat trans people with much kindness. Even those who aren’t outwardly hateful crinkle their noses at you. When enough people crinkle their noses at you, you begin to think you stink.
I began connecting with others in a meaningful way around the same time that my being trans stopped being a readily known fact about me. After graduating and moving to New York, no one knew me or saw me as anything other than Zeke, which was tremendously liberating — my whole life, I desired my manhood to be known without question or qualification.
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.
As someone who is not readily perceived to be trans, I possess a great deal of privilege, both because I can control — well, used to control — who knows my gender history, and also because I don’t experience the same type of discrimination, or even violence, that more visible trans people face — especially trans women of color.
A person’s gender history is private information and it is up to them, and only them, when, how, and to whom they choose to disclose that information. Keeping your gender history private is not the same as a gay person being “in the closet.” The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends.
There’s no playbook for being trans. You make it up as you go along, and I struggled with finding the right time to disclose my gender history to those close to me. What was appropriate? A week? A month? My gut would tell me to fill someone in, but then panic would wash over me. What if that person told other people?
My biggest concern was that if people knew, their opinion of me would change. I feared if I let anyone too close, they’d smell my stench and not want to be my friend anymore. Better to have acquaintances than no one at all. So I held them at arm’s length.
Honestly, I held the world at arm’s length. I came to fear discomfort and risk taking on the off chance that I might fail again. I never resumed leaping. I followed the path of least resistance, telling myself I would amount to something someday, just not today. Until one day I realized that if the somedays didn’t start becoming todays, I’d run out of days.
If the first chapter of the Zeke book of my life is about rebuilding from failure, I was well rebuilt. However, the structure’s sturdiness needed to be tested, because until it was, I would never definitively know if I was the man I believed myself to be. On a hot night in the summer of 2015, I pondered what this test might be. The answer appeared instantly, for it had been the constant in this chapter: Survivor.
I applied. I didn’t discuss my trans status in my initial video because I wanted the show to desire me as a game player and an eccentric storyteller, not as “The First Trans Survivor Player.” They did. Casting called back two hours later, and I began to panic.
I’d chosen to test myself in a tremendously public way. The results of the test wouldn’t be discreetly mailed back to me, they’d be broadcast to the entire world. I threw myself into preparation. There was no room for failure.
I lifted weights in the morning, swam at night, and in between acclimated to the heat in the sauna while reading books on mental toughness techniques utilized by endurance athletes. I ordered a bundle of bamboo poles and practiced making fire on the roof of my apartment building. I gave up caffeine and booze. I solved puzzles and tied and untied knots. I listened to Hamilton. A lot. I was not throwing away my shot.
The reality of playing Survivor terrified me, but I resolved that nothing would stand between me and the island. So I woke up every morning and told myself I would win. I faked confidence, hoping that when the day finally came to be dropped on a beach and meet the dashingly dimpled host and executive producer, Jeff Probst, I’d finally believe it.
The moment I put that buff, the official Survivor player uniform, on my head, my confidence became real. I knew I’d conquer whatever the game might throw at me. I was free. Now I could just play.
My rookie season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, instantly proved challenging. No one on my tribe of freewheeling Millennials had any idea how — or willingness to — build a shelter. The first night we huddled together in the mud as the Fijian skies dumped buckets of rain upon us. But I went to be challenged. I loved it. Not even Beyoncé herself could’ve tempted me out of the rain and mud and back into my soft Brooklyn bed.
All my preparation paid off: I made fire with bamboo — I made a fire by rubbing two damn sticks together. I excelled in challenges, proving myself adept in the water and a master at puzzles.
Strategically, I initially found myself the low man on the totem pole. I very easily could’ve been voted out third, but I managed to form strong relationships, maneuver other players to my will, and climbed my way to the top of the pack.
I impressed the hell out of myself. I couldn’t believe how well I was doing. Put under Survivor’s high stakes, I got out of my own way and allowed myself to be the man I always hoped I would be.
Playing Survivor well means knowing when to play fast and when to play slow, but deep into the game I was having so much fun playing fast that I laid on the gas. My prowess became undeniable and, as is the fate of most who are considered the leading threat to win, I was voted out.
Jeff Probst looked me square in the eyes and snuffed my torch, extinguishing my life in the game. Twenty minutes later, before I could scarf a cheeseburger or peel off my rotting boxers, Probst asked if I was up for doing it all over again … in two weeks … alongside some of the game’s best players. “I’m your guy,” I told Probst.
I was initially drawn to play in order to prove myself a cunning strategist worthy of a rare and highly coveted chance to one day return to the game. I’d made such a believer out of Probst that my second shot came immediately, which meant that I was every bit the player I’d dreamed I’d be. I cannot think of a time in my life when I was happier, more fulfilled, and more at peace with myself. I was living, finally. Why stop now?
Playing with rookies was one thing, but playing alongside my Survivor heroes in a season called Survivor: Game Changers was quite another. It was like waking up in Westeros, Lord Zeke of the Mustache Lands, fighting to claim the Iron Throne. But instead of flying dragons with Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, I trailed Ozzy, Master of Spear Fishing, out to the reef, dove down and watched him catch fish. Tai, the Chicken Whisperer, and I killed three chickens together. Debbie, the Woman with an Infinite Number of Jobs, told me about all of her jobs.
I’d been charmed by my cast mates’ quirks and touched by their stories. There’s no one whose journey resonated with me more than former local network news anchor Jeff Varner. Walking into the season, his story was that he’d played twice and never made the jury, the Survivor equivalent of making the playoffs. This was Varner’s third shot and likely his last. If he didn’t make the jury, he’d forever be remembered as the only three-time player to never do so.
To his credit, Varner received some bad breaks during his first two seasons, and in Game Changers, bad luck befell him once again. The numbers were not in his favor, but they were in mine, and I was excited to be on a tribe with him. I wanted the jury for him. I wanted to be the guy who made it happen.
Varner and I connected quickly. Events in his life back home drew him to seek an understanding of gay people’s place in Christianity. I studied religion in college, focusing specifically on LGBTQ people and the Bible. Though I’m not particularly religious, I feel passionately that people of faith should not be denied religious ritual or spiritual community because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and shared what I’d learned with Varner over long conversations on the beach.
I saw a pain, a brokenness in his eyes that felt all too familiar — a longing for the spotlight, but a desire to remain unseen. Though Varner has been openly gay for many years, he chose not to discuss his sexual orientation during his first two stints on the show. Beyond his charm and charisma, I thought I recognized a deep-seated insecurity and self-loathing, a glimpse at who I could become were I not careful.
All Varner had to do was make it until tomorrow and he’d get his jury seat. But he wasn’t going to. Our tribe proved unable to unscramble a word, metamorphosis, losing the Immunity Challenge and sending us to Tribal Council. Everyone’s best move was unquestionably to get rid of Varner.
My heart broke for him. I mulled over all the scenarios to save him, but each required me to significantly jeopardize my position. As much as I felt for the man, I wasn’t giving up my dream for his.
You never want a player to know they’re going home, because they might get desperate and go nuclear, douse the fire or pour out the rice. But my heart overrode my head when I sat down with him that afternoon. I told him he was going home. I thought he deserved to know it would be his last day on the beach.
Tribal Council throws the question of life and death into stark relief. One member of the tribe must be sacrificed each visit. Players ask each other: which one of us do we kill tonight? Fire, the flame of your torch, represents your life. When Probst snuffs that flame, your life is over. You exit to the left, into the darkness, what I called The Abyss. The rest of the tribe exits to the right, back to camp with a renewed lease on life.
Clearly, the stakes are not actually life and death. We’re a group of adults playing a very expensive game of make believe. But, despite all its deprivations, your Survivor life can be superior to your regular life.
I remember walking into Tribal Council that night. I remember the smell of the kerosene in our torches. I remember the smug smirk on his face and the gleam in his eye when he turned to me and snarled, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”
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.
Survivor had spun out of control. That’s the risk you take when you dance in the ethical borderlands, where you’ll betray a friend, swear on your mother, and lie to a priest all before you eat whatever meager crumbs count as breakfast. In Survivor, much is permissible which is typically objectionable, but there are limits, as there should be on a family-friendly reality show on network television.
It’s one thing to lie about someone sneaking off at night to search for hidden advantages. It is quite another to incense bigotry toward a marginalized minority.
Responsibility fell upon my shoulders to right the ship that had blown perilously far off course. I could let this be one of the worst moments of my life or one of the greatest. If I set the tone, everyone would follow. The power was in my hands.
I told myself, “Dude, you resolved to never stop playing. Buck up and make this OK.”
I am forever grateful that Probst gave me time to collect myself. Were I in the hands of a lesser leader, I’m sure questions would’ve been peppered my way before I was ready to receive them. I could not have responded in the manner in which I did had he not held the wheel while I got my bearings.
I tuned back in to the conversation and found chaos — tears, yelling, anger, but mostly confusion. I needed to calm everyone down. My chance to re-enter appeared — an opportunity to provide clarification. I spoke as calmly as I possibly could. Each word came slowly. Typically, my brain races far ahead of my ability to form words, but then it trudged, carefully selecting its path. My right leg settled down, but my left still jittered.
I took solace in my tribemates. They defended me passionately. Even Probst, the most neutral of arbiters, had my back. My left leg settled, and with it the group. Tears dried, voices lowered, and the attention turned to me to make sense of what happened. I didn’t know what to say.
Months before I plotted how I’d respond in case of such a disaster scenario, but those words were written a lifetime ago and nowhere in mind. I groped for direction, talking to kill time. Then, a single word appeared, the word I couldn’t find earlier in the day, the word that encapsulated my 50-plus days on the island: metamorphosis. Everything clicked. I sat up straight. My mind revved back up to full speed. As I spoke, l locked eyes with Probst, and he nodded along with me, as if to say, “Yes, yes, you’ve got it.” The ship was out of rough waters and back into placid seas.
I knew that Varner’s actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. His terrible utterances were not an effect of my actions, but a reflection of his own personal maladies.
But in calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. In proclaiming “Zeke is not the guy you think he is” and that “there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,” Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives.
I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes. Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is.
I looked to Varner, now the one hunched and quivering, and contemplated the backlash he would face. When he said what he said, he changed both of our lives forever. When he pulled me in for a hug, I felt compelled to reciprocate, both as a sign that I was willing to forgive him and that the shots he had fired missed.
But, if we’re being perfectly honest with one another, I’ve struggled with that forgiveness in the months following. I can’t foresee us sipping martinis together in Fire Island. While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform.
But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.
To adventure is to invite hazard into your life. The thrill of adventure comes from accepting this risk, and the reward from confronting whatever might be thrown at you. But you cannot control the hazards you face, be they repeated misfortune or the harmful actions of others. 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.
At the conclusion of Tribal, Jeff Varner’s torch was snuffed. He walked into the darkness, and the rest of us headed back to camp.
There’s no special dispensation for a traumatic Tribal. No chocolate chip cookies. No phone call home. Just the dirt and the hunger and the honor of another day playing the world’s greatest game.
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