The Trans Survivor Contestant Who Was Outed on National TV Shares His Inspiring Story

Taylor Henderson

During last night's episode of Survivor: Game Changers, cast member Zeke Smith was outed as transgender as a rival's last desperate attempt to save himself from elimination. The heartbreaking scene played out on national television, and the entire world gasped along with Zeke's shocked castmates.

In a moving column for The Hollywood Reporter, Zeke has decided to share intimate details of his experience as a trans man, the emotions surrounding the night he was nationally outed, and his thirst for adventure, love, and life.


A post shared by Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) on

The column begins:

"I’m not wild about you knowing that I’m trans. 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."

Zeke then walked us through his adolescence, and his journey growing up: 

"Growing up, I set big lofty goals — Broadway, a high school debate championships, Harvard — and pursued them doggedly. While my peers in Oklahoma were content to follow the path set for them, I forged my own, leaping from boulder to boulder with no regard for what was expected of me. I leapt fueled solely by my belief in myself, because, well, nobody liked me very much. I leapt fearlessly, until ... I crashed.  

The double whammy of major depression and transitioning blasted away my confidence. The failure I experienced made me doubt everything I once believed to be true about myself. I stopped dreaming. I stopped leaping. I found it difficult enough to simply put one foot in front of the other."


A post shared by Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) on

"I lost many from my life when I transitioned. 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 begin to think you stink.

I began connecting with others in a meaningful way around the same time that my being trans stopped being a readily known fact about me. After graduating and moving to New York, no one knew me or saw me as anything other than Zeke, which was tremendously liberating — my whole life, I desired my manhood to be known without question or qualification.

Many gay people consider coming out a moment of liberation, because sharing their sexual orientation with the world causes them to be seen more authentically. Often, the opposite is true for trans people. When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically — doubting, probing or denying our identities.

As someone who is not readily perceived to be trans, I possess a great deal of privilege, both because I can control — well, used to control — who knows my gender history, and also because I don’t experience the same type of discrimination, or even violence, that more visible trans people face — especially trans women of color.

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. Keeping your gender history private is not the same as a gay person being "in the closet." The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends."


A post shared by Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) on

"My biggest concern was that if people knew, their opinion of me would change. I feared if I let anyone too close, they’d smell my stench and not want to be my friend anymore. Better to have acquaintances than no one at all. So I held them at arm’s length. 

Honestly, I held the world at arm’s length. I came to fear discomfort and risk taking on the off chance that I might fail again. I never resumed leaping. I followed the path of least resistance, telling myself I would amount to something someday, just not today. Until one day I realized that if the somedays didn’t start becoming todays, I’d run out of days."


A couple of flamers fiddling with their bamboos. #Survivor #GameChangers

A post shared by Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) on

Zeke also shared the details of the night when his castmate, Jeff Varner, outed him as trans to the entire world. 

"You never want a player to know they’re going home, because they might get desperate and go nuclear, douse the fire or pour out the rice. But my heart overrode my head when I sat down with him that afternoon. I told him he was going home. I thought he deserved to know it would be his last day on the beach.

I remember walking into Tribal Council that night. I remember the smell of the kerosene in our torches. I remember the smug smirk on his face and the gleam in his eye when he turned to me and snarled, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”

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. 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.

I 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 of my actions, but a reflection of his own personal maladies.

But in calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. In proclaiming “Zeke is not the guy you think he is” and that “there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,” Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives."


A post shared by Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) on


In that moment, Zeke decided to forgive Varner for his transgressions. 

"I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, 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."



"But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.

To adventure is to invite hazard into your life. The thrill of adventure comes from accepting this risk, and the reward from confronting whatever might be thrown at you. But you cannot control the hazards you face, be they repeated misfortune or the harmful actions of others. You can only control how you respond. It’s up to you to decide whether the hazard will define you or you will define the hazard."

Read Zeke's full column on The Hollywood Reporter.



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