Jeff Varner’s Outing of Trans Contestant Zeke Smith on Survivor Was Despicable

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture/CBS

There’s so much to get mad about these days that it can be hard to know where to direct your outrage. On Twitter? To your senator? We’ve devised a handy rage calculator to help you determine the appropriate amount of outrage to express on social media.

We’re not mincing words with the outrage calibrator this time. One of the most despicable displays of gamesmanship on a reality-TV competition occurred on last night’s episode of Survivor: Game Changers, when contestant Jeff Varner outed his fellow teammate Zeke Smith as a trans man on national television. Moreover, Jeff calls Zeke “deceptive” — an age-old argument leveled against trans people that they are not their “true” selves. As Smith himself writes in an essay on The Hollywood Reporter, coming out is different for trans people than it is for gay men and lesbians: “When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically — doubting, probing or denying our identities.” What Varner did was reproduce that lie in one of the most craven, violent attacks one contestant could make on another on a reality show. Move over Wendy Pepper, there’s a new villain in town.

So what happened exactly?
We know it’s been a while since you first watched Richard Hatch win Survivor in the summer of 2000, but the essential format remains the same. A bunch of pretty normal people try to survive in the wild while playing physical and mental games. At the end of each episode, there’s a “tribal council,” where the tribe has to vote one of their own off the island. In this season, there are two teams, named Nuku and Mana. Jeff and Zeke are on the same team, Nuku, and in this episode, their team loses the immunity challenge by failing to solve a word scramble that spells “metamorphosis.”

In a last ditch effort before the vote, Varner tries to sow dissension by telling the other castmates that they couldn’t trust Zeke because Zeke wasn’t out. “There is deception here. Deception on levels these guys don’t even understand,” he says during tribal council, right before turning to Zeke. “There’s more: Why haven’t you told everyone here you’re transgender?”

Holy shit. How did people react?
Everyone is shellshocked, particularly Zeke. After the initial bomb, the other contestants are uniformly angry at Jeff Varner for this act of cruelty. Sarah Lacina calls it “a malicious attack.” Tai Trang, a gay man, says, “It’s your choice. Nobody should out anybody.” Even the normally evenhanded host Jeff Probst tells Varner: “You didn’t just tell six people; you told millions of people.”

Well, was Jeff Varner just reacting in the heat of the moment? No. Jeff Varner knew exactly what he was doing, and to excuse his actions as a desperate, emotional response belies the real, calculated malice behind them. He’s a veteran contestant, having competed on two prior seasons — Australian Outback and Cambodia — before this one.

After his group lost the immunity challenge, he tried to save his skin by creating rumors that Zeke was forming a secret alliance with Ozzy. He tells other contestants that they can’t really trust Zeke, because they don’t really “know” him. “There’s something about Zeke that nobody knows,” he says. “I feel like I know something about Zeke that nobody else has picked up on. It’s insignificant to this game, it means nothing, but this is not the guy you think he is, there’s something else here. If I have to go to tribal tonight and raise mortal hell, I’m going to do it.”

How did Zeke react?
In his essay, he writes:

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. To my left was the Abyss. I could’ve made a clean break for it, but I knew there was no running from what had happened. Cameras would follow me, if not that night, then eventually. Running was not an option. So I sat blank, almost in a trance, unaware of what happened around me, trying to form a plan.

When he does speak during tribal council, he’s incredibly gracious. So gracious, it makes you angry that he should be so generous in the face of such deplorable behavior. “I think I’ve been fortunate to play Survivor as long as I’ve been playing it and not have that label, and one of the reasons why I didn’t want to lead with that was because I didn’t want to be the trans Survivor player, I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player,” he says. “‘Metamorphosis’ is the word of the episode. I am a changed, stronger, better man today than I was then.”

How’s Jeff Varner reacting now?
Publicly, he’s contrite. He released a statement on Twitter saying he’s offering his “deepest, most heart-felt apologies” to Zeke and that he understands that what he did was a form of assault. He also told Us Weekly that he is in therapy now because of his actions.

However, there are some other troubling things. In a lead-up to the show’s 500th episode, Varner taped a video on his Facebook page where he teases his “favorite moment” in Survivor history in what is clearly a reference to the outing, because it has “yet to be aired.” He then goes on to say that this was a “traumatic situation” and that it might be “difficult for you,” the viewer, to watch. He says, “I just want to say that it’s an ugly game, and we can all do good with that if we try.” He then makes a kissing noise at the camera.

But isn’t Varner a gay man?
Don’t get it twisted: Gay men can be transphobic.

Should this have even aired?
That’s a great question. CBS released a statement standing behind its decision to air the episode, writing, “We consulted with Zeke Smith and with GLAAD in advance of the broadcast, including the issue of how Zeke would tell his story after the episode aired.” But really, it’s about what Zeke wanted. On Thursday Zeke went on The Talk to say that it was his decision for the episode to air: “I’ve been granted unprecedented autonomy in how I wanted to tell my story.” We applaud the way Zeke has taken control of the narrative.

So, how mad should I be?
Well, as for Jeff Varner, what he did was rob Zeke Smith of the right to present himself on his own terms. It was a heinous act, and you should be mad as hell.

Jeff Varner Outing Zeke Smith As Trans on Survivor Was Vile