Survivor: Game Changers contestant Zeke Smith was pretty shocked by the response to his being outed as transgender on national TV.
Zeke became the latest castaway booted from Survivor: Game Changers Wednesday night, and he will now serve as the fourth member of the jury voting on the season’s winner. Zeke’s active yet obvious strategic game turned him into a huge threat and led to his downfall, having been voted out by his former alliance.
Survivor fans will likely remember the other major Zeke moment from earlier in the season more, though. The April 12 episode of Survivor: Game Changers featured a desperate Jeff Varner outing Zeke as transgender to the entire tribe at Tribal Council; a moment that led to major media coverage. Zeke had a strong resolve through much of the incident and helped turn what was initially a malicious attack into a positive moment of awareness.
Outlets like The New York Times and Rolling Stone covered the event despite not having regular Survivor coverage, and Zeke penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter and appeared on The Talk. Zeke admitted this week to The Hollywood Reporter that he was genuinely surprised about the positive response he received.
“I was surprised at how overwhelmingly positive the reaction was. How well reported it was by the media. Everything reported it well. I was prepared for salacious headlines and dredged up photos from my past. I was prepared to be re-victimized. That the outrage was all toward the wrongdoer and the sympathy was towards me, and that people went out of their way to not even call me the trans Survivor player, but Zeke the Survivor player who is transgender — using the long way of writing about it — I was really overwhelmed. It was a unique moment in the way trans people are handled in the public eye. I’m very humbled and still awestruck at what happened.”
Zeke also commended Survivor host Jeff Probst, CBS, and the producers who chose to air this in the episode. While fans might have questioned why CBS aired the outing on national TV, Zeke reportedly gave them his blessing.
“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. It also marks a moment in the way trans people are accepted in this country, that everyone knew what he did was wrong, immediately.”
Positive transgender characters have steadily crept into mainstream media through shows like Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, and Glee. Other reality shows have featured trans men and women over the past few years, as well, on shows like Big Brother, I Am Cait, I Am Jazz, America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Zeke is Survivor‘s first openly transgender contestant.
Yet, as Zeke said on that fateful episode of Survivor: Game Changers, he does not want to simply be known as “the trans Survivor player.” He wants to be known as “Zeke the Survivor player.” As seen from subsequent episodes of this season, Zeke was not necessarily targeted and booted because of this outing, even if he suggested in The Hollywood Reporter interview that it didn’t help his game.
“My name started getting tossed around, and the reason why is that nobody wanted to sit next to me in the end, because I had a very compelling story,” Zeke said, of the days following his outing. However, he does take the blame for his gameplay after the merge, saying, “I did not play well in the merge. I did not make great decisions. I’ll give you that. My options were limited. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
[Featured Image by CBS Entertainment]