CBS Publicly Outed Transgender ‘Survivor’ Alum Zeke Smith, Not Jeff Varner [Opinion]

Full disclosure: Despite being on the air for nearly half of my existence, I have never purposely tuned into CBS to catch an episode of Survivor and no, the unintentional introduction of a transgender contestant will not be changing that.

Be that as it may, however, I still do have quite a bit to say when it comes to the long-running reality competition’s recent controversy; the crude outing of double-season alum Zeke Smith as an FTM (female-to-male) transgender by one of his “Game Changers” competitors, Jeff Varner.

But again, considering my limited knowledge of what actually transpired during that particular Tribal Council meeting — I haven’t even watched a YouTube clip of the moment — these words aren’t actually gearing to speak too much on either Varner or Zeke, other than to say Jeff was rightfully voted off after his unwarranted admission by-proxy, and Zeke was rightfully comforted by his competitors and Survivor host, Jeff Probst, afterward.

From what People has to say, I’m supposed to understand that Jeff’s spewing of Zeke’s truth; which wasn’t a complete secret, according to some viewers (but was still his own to tell), was an attempt to get rid of someone else that Jeff was gunning for — apparently, it was someone named Ozzy whose flame Jeff was trying to extinguish — but that’s neither here, there or anywhere that I’m ultimately going with this.

In fact, my issue actually lies with what Survivor host Jeff Probst, he of 55 years who never looks a day over 35, was noted as telling Jeff following his shocking reveal of Zeke’s past.

“What do you think the LGBT community’s reaction will be to this,” he asked Varner, an openly gay man, before twisting the knife ever deeper.

“Is it starting to hit you, the gravity, that you didn’t just tell six people? You told millions of people.”

Except, that’s not really what Varner did.

I mean, from a logical standpoint; at the most, perhaps 10 to 20 people were actually immediately privy to Varner’s voicing of that “shameful” factoid, including Zeke himself, the remaining Survivor cast mates, and certain CBS employees who were filming the action eight months ago when “Game Changers” was actually shot. The millions didn’t really follow suit until Wednesday night, to be honest.

“Varner realizes he has done something terrible and irrevocable,” Survivor: Toccasins runner-up, Steven Fishbach, wrote for People, “and even at Tribal Council, he begins to feel real grief and shame. I can only imagine how much he has been beating himself up over the past eight months, waiting for this to air and his actions to be made public.”

Eight months of possessing the footage and yet honchos at CBS, who are gravely aware of how that moment could negatively effect multiple lives, including those of Varner, Smith, their relatives, their friends, their employers, their co-employees and so many others, still let the moment play out uncensored in order to create “a moment” for television audiences.

And for the record, that was confirmed by both Smith and GLAAD in two separate statements unleashed early Thursday morning.

“I didn’t want to be the [first] trans* Survivor player,” Smith responded first, as People transcribed.

“I [just] wanted to be Zeke, the Survivor player. If metamorphosis is the word of the episode, [then] I feel like I’ve seen such a metamorphosis of myself. I don’t know that the scared kid who hit the mat in the marooning in 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.”

The director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, Nick Adams, would go on to follow up Smith’s words with a statement that directly mentioned that the organization teamed up with CBS and Survivor back in late 2016 to properly address the outing of Smith during the April 12 airing.

“[We worked with CBS and Survivor] for several months to ensure that when the episode aired, Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience,” Adams explained.

“Zeke Smith, and transgender people like him, are not deceiving anyone by being their authentic selves, and it is dangerous and unacceptable to out a transgender person. It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are.”

Except, again, we also know that to not always be true.

In 2016, a flurry of transgender-related assaults and murders occurred almost on the daily (mainstream media, as it often goes, mostly ignored the crisis) just one year after marriage equality became the law of the land. Furthermore, one of the biggest mass murders in American history, the massacre at Pulse nightclub, also proved that all of the “acceptance” in the world can’t always save us from those who are just plain ignorant.

And sadly, we are always going to have to deal with ignorance, especially if you’re considered an “other” among the “normal,” but the best way to deal with that, especially in the open medium of entertainer or better yet, reality television that features people portraying themselves for entertainment purposes is to, for lack of better phrasing, “fake it ’till you make it.”

What I mean by that is in that sort of environment, when one is around other people whose way of life and thinking is unfamiliar to them and vice versa, it is completely reasonable to keep certain aspects about your life completely hidden until, at the very least, they’re out of harm’s way both mentally and physically.

cbs survivor transgender

In Zeke’s defense, I’m sure he was pretty much cornered by contract to let things play out as they did, but CBS, in all their power and glory, had more than enough time and footage to work out another option to not just keep him safe from potential backlash, but Varner, too. Instead, they did nothing because they’re aware of the one thing that drives reality TV and keeps it afloat in the world overrun with reality TV programs: high drama makes for good ratings.

This could’ve ended a lot differently than it did, and taught an entirely different kind of “lesson” then this one, and I don’t think many fully realize simply because it ended on somewhat of a high note for Zeke, but bear in mind that for all of the “moments” that go right, there are so many others that go extremely left; not just on reality TV, but in actual reality itself.

Just imagine what might have happened if just one of the six other Survivor contenders had an issue with transgender people. What if, pray tell, that person antagonized Zeke for the remainder of his time in the competition and even worse, what if they physically attacked him over his decision to live life as his true, honest self? Sure, security guards may be a thing behind the scenes and I’m sure he might’ve walk away from such an incident with maybe a bruise or two on the outside, but on the inside, irrevocable damage could’ve occurred with CBS, Probst and anyone attached to Survivor all rightfully being blamed for any harm that came Zeke’s way.

Not to mention, Zeke’s not really that comfortable with everyone knowing his big secret now.

“I’m not wild about [everyone] knowing that I’m [transgender],” the first line of an open letter written by Zeke on The Hollywood Reporter, reads.

What CBS should’ve done, make no doubt about it, is re-shot the entire Tribal Council Meeting or at the very least, edit things out in a way where it played out as some kind of mysterious, last-minute Survivor “twist” took place that no saw coming — especially since random “twists” are pretty much what Survivor and every other reality show on television, pretty much lives on.

So, why not employ one when it would not only keep an audience on the edge of their seat for the next episode, but also truly teach a lesson about why outing someone as transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, non-gender confirming, etc., can literally be detrimental to one’s well-being at the live reunion that takes place each and every year?

Long story short, Jeff Varner didn’t out Zeke Smith as transgender to millions of CBS viewers watching Survivor — CBS did that to get everyone talking and they deserve just as much criticism, if not more, than Varner is currently receiving.

[Featured Image by CBS Television Distribution]