Zeke Smith was just voted out of "Survivor: Game Changers," and even though he did tie his departure to his public outing as transgender, he's also pleasantly surprised at how the public has treated him since that episode aired. He's also not mad at CBS for airing that outing to millions of people, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I've always wanted this to air.
A few weeks ago, during tribal council, Jeff Varner outed Zeke as transgender, something Zeke had not mentioned to anyone else in this season or the previous Season 33, in which he also competed. He was hoping to just play the game as Zeke, instead of becoming "The trans 'Survivor' player." It became a big to-do on the show and online; Smith told Entertainment Weekly, and wrote in his own Hollywood Reporter guest blog, that he was prepared for backlash and "all kinds of exploitative, sensationalist headlines" to revictimize him. That's what he saw from other trans stars who were in the public eye before him. But that didn't happen. Instead, he said he was "flabbergasted" and touched by how people defended and supported him; he said he hopes this can be a model for how trans people are received in the public arena going forward.
Some "Survivor" viewers were not only upset with Varner for outing Zeke to the fellow castaways, but with CBS and the show itself for choosing to air that footage. To those viewers, it was CBS that outed Zeke to millions of people. Entertainment Weekly asked Varner about that backlash:
EW: What do you think about the people that are saying CBS should not have aired what happened? There are a lot of people with a lot of different opinions about that, but ultimately your take is the one that matters.
Zeke Smith: "I've always wanted this to air. And I think it's also important to say that I didn't go on national television unprepared for the world to know that I am trans, and was ready should that part of my life become part of my Survivor story. It never crossed my mind that it shouldn't air and I certainly never asked for it not to air. I've always felt as Jeff Probst has felt and CBS has felt that this could be a great.... It's like, there was a moment of darkness, but that it was important for the world to see how my tribemates reacted and how Probst reacted. They so quickly and adamantly rebuffed Varner's actions. It was just a textbook example of how to respond to injustice. I think if you consider that Tribal Council a scar on Survivor history or a dark moment, you don't have the right perspective.
Also, in the intervening months, I've worked so closely with Survivor and CBS and they've always been fully committed to me telling the story on my terms. Probst made it clear all the way back in Fiji how well this would be handled. He promised to never leave me hanging and he never has. And on a personal note, I've usually found it true that you shouldn't meet your heroes, but he's been a pretty big shining bright exception. They've always worked with me. It was my request to do press and writing an op-ed. The supervising producer, Joe Lia, has always held me close to his heart. He's become a friend. He's always been a phone call away. He really listened to understand the significance of what went down. I think our highest hope was that this story would travel far and wide and be a beacon of hope and an example of how people's attitude towards trans people are changing. I'm really proud to have been a part of it."
For the record, he does think Varner outing him affected his game, since he knew after that that no one would want to go to the end with him, because they thought his compelling story would be tough to beat. He told EW his ideal final three would've been with Michaela and Culpepper. He also said he had more fun on his previous season since the Season 33 players were big super fans who didn't take things too personally, unlike the Season 34 veterans.
"And then I think with the returning players season, I think the stakes are a little higher, the expectations are higher, the egos are larger, and there's not that same sense of sportsmanship. It felt personal in a way that 33 never did. I think people weren't having fun out there. I felt like at times that no one wanted to be there. I was like 'What are you guys doing?! This is Survivor! This is the coolest thing ever! We're starving, but we're starving on Survivor! Let's get excited about it!'"
True. The Season 33 group was amazing, and returning players do tend to come in with big egos and big attitudes. Let's just hope we don't have a bitter jury.
"Survivor" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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