There’s Survivor, the godfather of reality TV, and then there’s real life.
Survivor: Millennial vs Gen X alum Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by Survivor: Australia contestant and fellow tribe mate, Jeff Varner, during Wednesday night’s episode.
Survivor: Game Changers has featured one exhilarating tribal council after another, but the mood shifted quickly when Varner outed Smith as transgender. The segment is the precursor to the tribe's vote to kick a player off the island, and can get heated as contestants lobby to send one another packing. By outing Smith, Varner tried to make the case that what he was “showing was a deception.”
Fellow contestants and fans alike immediately swatted down his explanation, saying Varner went way too far.
Varner’s faulty and tone-deaf logic (following what appeared to be a nearly successful appeal to oust fellow tribe mate Ozzy) shifted the focus of tribal council entirely, leaving a number of players in tears. Host Jeff Probst stepped in to question Varner, an openly gay man, about his decision to out Smith as a “game move.”
Fellow contestants rallied around Smith as he explained, “One of the reasons I didn’t want to lead with that is because I didn’t want to be like, the trans Survivor player. I want to be Zeke the Survivor player.”
Varner was apologetic before being asked to leave by his tribe without an official vote.
Though Survivor has featured a number of gay and lesbian contestants in its 34-season run, Smith is the first out transgender person to play the game. Both players were fan favorites of their respective seasons, with Varner originally appearing on the series’ second installment in Australia, and Smith appearing for the first time in the 33rd season.
Varner hails from North Carolina, which only two weeks ago rolled back it's costly and controversial measure on bathroom access for transgender students.
The decision by CBS to air the episode and the outing was questioned by many, but Probst’s response on Twitter suggests that Smith understood of how the show would portray the moment on air. And he wrote a telling essay for The Hollywood Reporter explaining the story.
As gracious on social media as he was on Wednesday’s episode, Smith took to Twitter to voice his thoughts and even went for a laugh, as he’s been known to do in his two seasons on Survivor.
Smith will continue on to the top thirteen next week as the tribes merge. Though visceral, raw, and difficult to watch, the moment serves as a painful reminder of how fine of a line exists between reality television and reality.