On Tonight's Survivor:
I am a transgender woman, only out to a couple family members and all of you online. I’m pre-transition but about to start, which is to say that I have not yet begun to know the struggles I will likely go through in life to be myself.
On tonight’s episode of Survivor: Game Changers (Season 34!), a closeted trans-man named Zeke was outed, both publicly and on the show, by a fellow contestant at Tribal Council. This contestant, Jeff Varner, was likely to be eliminated from the game and announced to the tribe that Zeke was trans, ostensibly as a ploy to make people distrust Zeke.
The initial response by both Zeke’s fellow tribemates and the host Jeff Probst was stunned silence followed by intense anger and sadness directed at Varner. All five tribemates lambasted Varner as Zeke sat in shock.
My reaction was the same as Zeke’s. I couldn’t believe that someone I had watched on my local news for years, someone who I had loved on two previous seasons, someone who was an openly gay man, could do something so mindlessly cruel to another person. I expect those type of comments from ignorant assholes and spineless politicians, but certainly not from someone like Jeff Varner. I also realize that Varner surely regretted saying it once the words actually came out, but that doesn’t undo his actions. I know I have said stupid things in my life, but I can’t say I’ve ever stooped that low as an adult.
Despite all of this, somehow the overall feeling I have tonight is joy. Something so tragic could’ve left me feeling shaken and sad, but the way Zeke turned the moment into a beautiful one amazes me the more I think about it.
After regaining his composure at Tribal Council, Zeke found the strength to say this:
“Being trans and transitioning, it’s a long process, it’s a very difficult process, and there are people who know. But then I sort of got to the point where I stopped telling people, because when people know that about you, that’s sort of who you are. There are questions people ask, people who want to know about your life, they want to know about this and that, and it sort of overwhelms everything else that they know about you. You’re no longer Zeke, you’re ‘the trans person’.
I think I’ve been fortunate to play Survivor as long as I’ve been playing it and not have that label, and one of the reasons I didn’t want to lead with that is that I didn’t want to be ‘the Trans Survivor Player’, I wanted to be Zeke, the Survivor player. And I feel like I am! So I’m okay. I knew someone might pick up on it or it might be revealed, so I am prepared to talk about it, to have it be a part of my Survivor experience. It’s kind of crappy the way it’s happened, but, you know.
'Metamorphosis’ is the word of the episode, and I feel like I’ve seen such a metamorphosis of myself over the past 52 days I’ve played Survivor. I don’t know if the scared kid who hit the mat in the marooning of (Season) 33 would be as calm as I am right now, but I’ve started two fires with just bamboo, I’ve won challenges, I’ve been part of blindsides, I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff and I am a changed, stronger, better man today than I was then. So you know what Varner, it was really not cool, but you know, I’m fine.
You know Jeff, I’m certainly not anyone who should be a role model for anybody else, but maybe there’s someone who’s a Survivor fan, and me being out on the show helps him, or helps her, or helps someone else, and so maybe this will lead to a greater good.”
As incredible as it was to hear these words delivered so eloquently by Zeke, and on national television no less, it was the words from another tribemate that amazed me the most.
Sarah, a conservative cop on the tribe, was the most reserved person at Tribal Council while the chaos caused by Varner’s words unfolded behind her, sitting deep in contemplation. What she finally said blew me away.
“I’m just thankful that I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is. I’ve been with him for the last eighteen days, and he’s, like, super kick-ass. I’m from the Midwest and I come from a very conservative background, so it’s not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender things like that. So I’m not as exposed to it as much as most of these people are, and the fact that I can love this guy so much, and it doesn’t change anything for me, it makes me realize that I’ve grown huge as a person.
Of course we want to come away with the million dollars, but the metamorphosis that I’ve even made as a person that I didn’t realize until this minute is invaluable. I’m sorry it came out that way, but I’m glad it did. I’m so glad I got to know you for Zeke, and not for what you were afraid of us knowing you as, and I’ll never look at you that way.”
Seeing someone who has obviously never had to confront feelings like this so directly, and quickly realizing that she still loved Zeke for Zeke, with his being transgender not changing anything, gives me hope. It makes me realize that most people, when given the opportunity, will treat you with kindness and compassion. And maybe what they need to explore these feelings is to have a personal moment of realization like Sarah did. Zeke, and Varner I suppose, gave millions of people the opportunity that Sarah had tonight.
Some people will hold onto their prejudices regardless and demonize Zeke to fit their worldview. Perhaps they’ll never become accepting of LGBTQ people, or maybe it will take someone directly in their life coming out to change. But I know that some people watching tonight, who rooted for Zeke every week not knowing he was trans, are spending tonight reconsidering their values. That’s progress. And what a beautiful thing it is.
On a personal level, the handling of this moment by both Jeff Probst and the producers/editors involved in it make me proud to be a “superfan” of this show. It could have gone haywire and turned into a purely rotten situation, but instead became a truly important focus on what it means to be true to yourself in this world. I have always wanted to be on this show, roughing it in the rain with people scheming against me, trying miserably to untie knots underwater because I want to be treated to Adam Sandler’s latest film, feeling the euphoria of making it onto the jury, and even the slim possibility of winning a million dollars. I had never truly thought I could make it onto the show, and coming out as transgender initially made me think that I had even less of a chance.
Zeke changed that for me.
I want to make an audition tape now. I feel like if he can do it, and do it so well, then why the hell cant I? I know millions of people have had that same thought, but I’ve never once felt this sense of drive in my young life. I owe that to Survivor first and foremost, but also to Zeke and the, dare I say it, heroism he showed on tonight’s episode.
Maybe you’ll see me on a future season of Survivor, maybe not. But I know that I got something life-changing out of the show tonight, and I’m sure I’m not alone. If eight year old me, sitting there enthralled by the very first season of Survivor, could know just how big an effect this show would have on her, she wouldn’t believe it. Mostly because she was eight and didn’t know anything about anything, but still.
Tonight, send your love to Zeke Smith for bravely confronting what could have been ruinous and transforming it into something worth celebrating. Send your love to Sarah Lacina, Ozzy Lusth, Tai Trang, Andrea Boehlke, and Debbie Wanner for speaking up on Zeke’s behalf, being true allies to trans people everywhere, and showing that there will always be people in this world who will have your back when the bullies try to knock you down. And send your love to Jeff Varner, who made a terrible mistake, and has by all accounts suffered ten times over for it. Allow him to learn from this and become a better person as a result. He will be most capable of doing this with your love and support. Do not excuse his actions and similar actions of others worldwide, but fight to turn the negatives into positives whenever possible.
We can do this.