How CBS and Survivor’s Producers Handled the Outing of a Transgender Contestant

Zeke Smith worked with the network and GLAAD to share his story

Zeke Smith had not previously revealed on each of his two Survivor seasons that he was transgender.
Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment

Even in its 34th season, Survivor is still capable of some jaw-dropping twists. And one of the show’s biggest came during Wednesday’s episode of Survivor: Game Changers, in which Jeff Varner, who was frantically trying to avoid being eliminated during the Tribal Council, outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender.

The context around that shocking TV moment—which was immediately met by vitriol from the other contestants, who unanimously dismissed Varner for his cruel act—was one that CBS and Survivor producers had spent nine months preparing for, since the episode was filmed in Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands.

Smith, who had also appeared on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X last year, had been openly gay on the show, but had not previously talked about his gender history on-air.

That all changed when Varner, fighting to stay on the show, began talking at the Tribal Council about “deception on all levels,” before turning to Smith and saying, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

Smith sat stunned, as the other contestants immediately tore into Varner for his actions, which they deemed inappropriate and outrageous. He was then unanimously voted off, without Survivor’s traditional individual ballot casting process.

Over the past nine months since the episode was filmed, producers have been discussing how to address and contextualize that moment. “The idea of not airing this never came up,” Jeff Probst, the show’s longtime host and an executive producer, told the New York Times. Smith told The Talk on CBS that Probst had given him “unprecedented autonomy” in working with them to be able to properly tell his story.

After the episode aired, Smith sat down with People and wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, in which he said, “in calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes.”

In a statement after the episode aired, Nick Adams, director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) transgender media program, said, “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.”

“The idea of not airing this never came up.”
-Jeff Probst, host and executive producer, Survivor

“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.”

And Varner himself apologized Wednesday night in lengthy statement via Twitter, which read in part, “I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life. Let me be clear, outing someone is assault.”

CBS released a statement yesterday, supporting producers for how they handled this week’s 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.”

This season, Survivor is averaging 8 million total viewers, and has a 1.7 rating in the 18-49 demo.