By Lisa Respers France
The outing of a “Survivor” cast member on television has sparked outrage.
Zeke Smith, who appeared on back-to-back seasons of the reality series, was revealed to be a transgender man by fellow contestant Jeff Varner in an episode that aired Wednesday night.
Varner, who is gay, shared the information during an emotional Tribal Council on “Survivor: Game Changers.”
“Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” Varner asked Smith.
Other contestants reacted negatively, telling Varner that was personal and he shouldn’t have said it. Varner insisted he did it to show that Smith was deceptive during the game.
Smith responded by explaining that he didn’t want to be labeled “the trans ‘Survivor’ player.”
“I wanted to be Zeke the ‘Survivor’ player,” Smith said.
Varner apologized, but was voted off the show.
Some fans were both stunned by the revelation and angered that Varner chose to go public with the information.
Contestants on the series compete for a major cash prize by surviving in remote locations and competing in extreme challenges.
“Survivor” host Jeff Probst told Entertainment Weekly that while he has rarely given his personal opinion in 34 seasons of the series, he could not remain quiet about this incident.
“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,” Probst said. “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.”
In a guest column written for The Hollywood Reporter, Smith said he wasn’t “wild” about viewers knowing he is transgender.
He said he began watching “Survivor” at a time when he was dealing with both depression and transitioning.
“So significant was the experience that I remember where I watched Episode 1 of ‘Survivor: Cook Islands;’ I remember the date, May 2, 2010.” Smith wrote. “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.”
Smith said moving to New York where people knew him only as “Zeke” was “tremendously liberating.”
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
Varner tweeted an apology after the episode aired, calling it “the worst decision of my life.”
“Yep. I did that. And I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended,” Varner wrote in a statement he posted.
“Let me be clear, outing someone is assault,” he added. “It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger.”
While the show was filmed eight months ago, Smith told People he struggles with forgiving Varner.
“I don’t think (Varner) hates trans people. I just think he has a lot of misconceptions about trans people,” Smith said. “I think if he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go.”