On April 12, 2017, an episode of “Survivor” aired called “What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile.” On it, Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as a transgender man at Tribal Council and was voted off unanimously after being blasted for blurting out something that was Smith’s story to tell.
On a recent episode of “For Real: The Story of Reality TV” on E!, Smith reflected on his experience with “Survivor” and how the show and host Jeff Probst handled his situation. Here is what he had to say.
Smith Said The Outing Left Him Reeling
When it happened at Tribal Council, Smith admitted that it left him reeling — “I was checked out for about 45 minutes to an hour [after it happened],” said Smith. “In all of the ways that I had gamed out how I would potentially talk about being trans, it was never being so dramatically outed at Tribal Council.”
Smith said it was terrifying to think about being aired on national television, but host Jeff Probst stepped up and reassured him that the show would handle it respectfully.
“The day after I got voted out, I was on the phone with Jeff Probst and he made a handful of promises to me about how my outing was going to be handled,” said Smith. “He was like, ‘We’re not gonna promote it, we’re not gonna sensationalize it, I’m gonna go to bat for you.’ He kept every single one of those promises.”
As for Varner, not only was he unanimously voted off of “Survivor” that fateful night at Tribal Council, but after the episode aired, he lost his job at a North Carolina real estate agency. Varner told “Entertainment Tonight” at the time that he was so sorry for what he did to Smith and wanted to make it right if he could.
“I love him. I feel for him and I’ll do whatever I can in the future to help him if he’ll let me … I feel like now the healing can begin, not only for me but hopefully for Zeke and hopefully for trans people across the world,” said Varner at the time.
Smith Was Surprised to Find Himself As a Role Model But He’s So Proud Now
Smith said that he was “very scared” of being looked to as a role model for the trans community because he wasn’t sure he was “up to the challenge.”
“But I’m very proud of what we were able to do,” he added. “Before my outing aired, if you were to Google ‘trans person is outed,’ like the first 100 results are all news stories of trans people who had killed themselves after being outed. And now if you Google ‘trans outings,’ you don’t get all the stories of suicides, you get my story. And mine is a very positive one because subsequent to my outing, my life has only gotten better.”
Indeed. Since his appearance on “Survivor: Game Changers” in 2017, Smith has taken his outing and used it as a platform. In 2018, he was on hand to accept the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program on behalf of “Survivor: Game Changers,” saying in his speech how important representation is on TV.
“Together with GLAAD, we changed millions of people’s perceptions of transgender people. We shattered stereotypes. We created a global conversation about privacy and respect,” said Smith, adding, “Over the past year, I’ve met a lot of trans kids. … I see these kids struggling to retain hope that they’ll have an equal shot in the world. LGBTQ visibility on television matters because for many it is the only chance to glimpse their future. And to see that it is very bright.”
Smith has also found love with one of the stars of “Superstore,” Nico Santos. In an interview with Variety, Santos said that they were quarantining together during the pandemic and he is so grateful to have found Smith.
“I’m so grateful and thankful that he’s here with me. I honestly probably wouldn’t have survived these past few weeks without him,” said Santos, who lost his stepfather to COVID in early 2020.
“Survivor” is back in production now. If the pattern holds, it should be premiering its 41st season the third or fourth week of September 2021.