There are some lines that must not be crossed – even in reality TV.
On the last episode of “Survivor: Game Changers,” that boundary was broken.
On Wednesday night’s episode, alum Zeke Smith was outed by fellow contestant Jeff Varner. During the episode’s tribal council, openly gay Varner was making the case to stay on the island.
“There is deception here, deception on levels, Jeff, that these people don’t even understand,” Varner told the host Jeff Probst. “There’s more,” he said, turning his attention to Smith. “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
Smith and his fellow castaways sat stunned until Varner broke the silence to justify his question. “What I’m showing is a deception,” he explained.
But the fellow castaways did not accept that explanation — instead, they rallied against Varner.
“Nobody has the right to out anybody,” one contestant said as the castaways erupted in Smith’s defense. “It was for Zeke to discuss when he was comfortable discussing it,” another contestant remarked.
“Two seasons playing ‘Survivor,’ I’ve told nobody,” Smith said.
Varner shifted his tone and apologized to Smith. “You can’t unring the bell,” Probst told Varner.
Smith explained why he didn’t out himself as transgender on the show —“I didn’t want to be the ‘trans Survivor player.’ I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player.”
Instead of the typical secret ballot used to vote a contestant off the island, Probst openly polled the tribal council. They voted Varner off the island.
“Nobody on the planet should do what I did tonight. Ever,” Varner said in the closing credits. “And I’m so sorry to anyone I offended, especially to Zeke and his family.”
After the episode aired, GLAAD Transgender Media Program Director Nick Adams weighed in on Smith’s outing. "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. 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."
Varner later took to Twitter to apologize.
“Yep. I did that. And I offer my deepest, most heartfelt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended,” he wrote. “I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew. I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life.”
He closed his apology with a message to people like him:
“We cisgender Americans live with an enormous amount of privilege and should spend time pondering how we can use that for greater good. When we disrespect or discriminate, or turn blind eyes to it, we wound all of us. I am deeply saddened at what my mistake unleashed and I promise to use its lessons to do the right thing.”
Zeke also shared a message with his fans on Twitter:
“We cannot control the hazards we face, we can only control how we respond,” he said. “Love each other.”