Survivor 2017 featured a very significant moment Wednesday night in which contestant Zeke Smith was outed as transgender, but did he ultimately give the show permission to air this reveal? The moment, which occurred during the last 20 minutes of the episode at Tribal Council, had some on social media questioning the intentions of CBS for airing it.
In a moment of pure desperation, Survivor contestant Jeff Varner revealed to the rest of his tribe that Zeke was transgender during Tribal Council. Varner openly asked Zeke why he hadn’t told anyone about being trans, causing stunned silence among the group followed by an outburst of emotion from others in the tribe. Andrea Boehlke started crying, Tai Trang yelled at Varner for publicly outing someone in this manner, and Debbie Wanner sternly told him this was bringing personal life into the game in an unnecessary way.
Zeke was visibly shaken by the moment, and Survivor host Jeff Probst appeared to allow him to compose himself and react to the gravity of the situation. Zeke spoke about not wanting to be known as just the trans man from Survivor but simply as Zeke from Survivor. Instead of lashing out at Varner, he calmly explained how he has changed as a person from his Survivor experience, growing in strength and confidence. Zeke’s tribemates reassured him and showed their love towards him, as Varner fully began to realize the horrific thing he had done. Varner would ultimately be voted out unanimously.
While many have commended Zeke’s bravery in the face of such adversity, some have called into question why Survivor and CBS would publicly air Zeke’s transgender outing considering the manner in which it was revealed. Jeff Probst commented on last night’s Survivor in an interview with Entertainment Weekly and said in so many words that Zeke had essentially allowed his story to be told here.
“My story with Zeke goes like this. I met Zeke in casting and loved him. I still have my original notes from that meeting. He was very engaging, gifted in his ability to manipulate with his words, and he wore this crazy Hawaiian shirt and had poofy hair. We knew we were doing Millennials vs. Gen X as a theme and we wanted him on the Millennials tribe immediately. It wasn’t until after he left that I was told he was transgender. From that point forward we agreed that if his story was to be told, he would be the one to decide when, where, and how.”
Probst also took to Twitter and implied that Zeke had known ahead of time that Survivor was going to tell this story in last night’s episode and may have even been a part of how the moment was shown.
— Jeff Probst (@JeffProbst) April 13, 2017
Zeke himself wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, telling his side of the story and admitting that he doesn’t love that millions of Survivor fans now know that he is transgender. However, he notes before launching into a recounting of his Survivor experience 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.”
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.”
— SURVIVOR (@survivorcbs) April 13, 2017
UPDATE: CBS released this statement clarifying whether they consulted with Zeke about this episode:
After the tribal council scene in last night’s ‘Survivor’ was filmed, we consulted with Zeke Smith and with GLAAD in advance of the broadcast, including the issue of how Zeke would tell his story after the episode aired. This is his second consecutive season on ‘Survivor.’ From his first season through the current edition, we have always been guided by the principle that this is his story to tell, and it remains so.
We support how Jeff Probst and the producers handled a very sensitive situation and marvel at the grace Zeke exhibited under extraordinary circumstances. We also have respect for how Jeff Varner has expressed remorse for his mistake, both in the episode and in his subsequent dialogue with the media. In the end, we believe this episode, accompanied by Zeke’s own remarkable writing and speaking on the subject, has provided an unexpected but important dialogue about acceptance and treating transgender people with respect.”
As seen from the preview of next week’s episode of Survivor, Zeke will have made the merge alongside 12 of his fellow castaways. In his first season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, he made it to ninth place. Will the undeniably powerful bond he has made with Andrea, Tai, Debbie, Ozzy Lusth and Sarah Lacina help him get further this time around? Only time will tell.
Survivor 2017 airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
[Featured Image by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment]