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Survivor's Zeke Writes Column about Being Outed as Transgender During Tribal Council
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13 Apr 2017 04:22 PM EST

-by Laura Tucker, Staff Writer; Image: Zeke Smith from Survivor (Image Source: Screenshot)

The theme of this season's Survivor on CBS is "Game Changers," and so far they haven't failed at doing just that every episode.

The cast is filled with former players who all in their own way changed the game. And now they are gathered together for a season to see just who among those would outwit, outplay, outlast.

But because these people are game changers, they'll do just about anything to win that million dollars. Throughout all these seasons we've seen many surprising and shocking things that people would do, such as dumping over the rice for the entire tribe so that no one can eat, throwing people's clothes in the fire, lying and saying a grandmother is dying to gain sympathy.

But this time it's different. This will have long-range effects on people's lives, both inside and outside the game. While contestants have gone too far before, this time it was inconceivable to play the game this way, all in an effort to win a million dollars.

Before Tribal Council, Zeke Smith wanted to let Jeff Varner, his new friend, know that he was being voted out. But once they got to Tribal Council, Varner wasn't ready to accept his fate. He mentioned how others were being deceptive and asked Smith why he hadn't told anyone he was transgender.

Smith wrote an essay for The Hollywood Reporter where he deals in depth about transitioning and how Varner's gameplay affected him.

"I'm not wild about you knowing that I'm trans," he wrote. "An odd sentiment, I realize, for someone who signed up for two seasons of the CBS reality giant, Survivor. See, when I got on a plane to Fiji last March, I expected to get voted out third, I'd return home, laugh at my misadventure, and go about my life, casually trans in the same way that Zac Efron is casually Jewish."

He then delves into his connection with a game where "the harsh elements merely play backdrop to a complex game of social politics dominated by secret alliances, hidden advantages and each cutthroat player's ability to befriend and betray any who stand in their way."

Smith laid out how he started watching the show when he was changing his life and testing "the depths of manhood." He notes he always set "lofty goals" for himself while growing up in Oklahoma.

"'Survivor player' became part of the remodel blue prints. Suddenly, I found myself drawn to engage in challenging social situations, run obstacle races and backpack the Grand Canyon," he wrote.

He trained by lifting weights, swimming, reading books on mental toughness, making fire, solving puzzles, and untying knots.

He also explains that when he transitioned, he lost people from his life.

"Most were supportive in theory, but distanced themselves, unsure and a little weirded out by the process. On the whole, the world doesn't treat trans people with much kindness. Even those who aren't outwardly hateful crinkle their noses at you. When enough people crinkle their noses at you, you being to think you stink," he said.

He explained keeping his secret, knowing he is something "not readily perceived to be trans" and stating "a person's gender history is private information, and it is up to them, and only them, when, how and to whom they choose to disclose that information. ... The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends." He lived in fear that if people found out, their opinion of him would change.

Once on Survivor the first time around, he did so well he was voted out for fear he'd win the game. He came back as a "game changer" and said of all the people he played with, no one's "journey resonated with me more than former local network news anchor Jeff Varner." He considered keeping him in the game, knowing this was Varner's third time playing, and he'd never made it to the jury, but he didn't want to give up his own dream and knew that Varner had to go.

He explains the moments right after he was outed.

"The lights magnified in brightness. The cameras, though 30 feet away, suddenly felt inches from my face. All sound faded. Something primal deep inside me screamed: run. I lost control of my body, my legs bounced up and down uncontrollably, willing me to flee, but the rest of me sat dead as stone," he said.

Despite how devastating this must have been for him, Smith "knew that Varner's actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. His terrible utterances were not an effect on my actions but a reflection of his own personal maladies."

But where he finds fault with Varner is in him implying that he's being deceptive in being trans. And looking at the transgender community's fight over which bathroom to use, he realizes "trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes."

"Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is," he noted.

Before Varner was sent home that night, he and Smith shared a hug. Smith now says he "felt compelled to reciprocate," but he admits he's "struggled with that forgiveness in the months following ... While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform."

What we don't know at this point is what effect this will all have on the rest of the season. Surely the other tribe will find out what happened in some way. And the truly most unfair part of this is Smith will not be allowed to play the game he wanted to. This was his dream. But if he makes it to the end now, he'll wonder if it was out of sympathy from his fellow survivors for what he was put through at Tribal Council. If he's voted out, he'll wonder if it's because he's trans or if it's because the others realize he's a sympathetic vote at the end.

Zeke Smith is a game changer and has showed that through two seasons of Survivor. But he'll never find out if his gameplay will take him to the end even if he does make it there.

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