In hindsight, Jeff Varner would have treated Zeke Smith differently.
Before the tribal meeting in Wednesday's episode of Survivor: Game Changers, Varner said he had a hunch about Smith that "nobody else has picked up on." While "it's insignificant to this game," Varner added, "This is not the guy you think he is. There's something else here."
Varner added he was ready to reveal Smith's secret to save himself. "If I have to go to tribal tonight and raise mortal hell, I'm gonna do it," he vowed. "I'm not going quietly off this island."
He sure didn't.
Realizing he was in danger of going home, Varner told the tribunal, "There is deception on levels here that these guys don't understand." Turning to Smith, he asked, "Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender?" Everyone—Smith included—was taken aback. While Smith said very little, several others leapt to his defense and yelled at Varner, who later apologized. When Jeff Probst explained that he had outed Smith not just to the other players, but also to the entire world, Varner said, "It never dawned on me that no one knew. I'm just devastated."
Varner issued another apology via Instagram after the episode aired.
"Yep. I did that. And I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended," the 50-year-old player 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."
"Let me be clear, outing someone is assault. It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger. It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime. I am profoundly sorry. Zeke is a wonderful man and I will forever be amazed and inspired by his forgiveness and compassion," said Varner, who competed in Seasons 2 and 31. "I thank God for that and the gift of being an example as to why you should never do what I did."
Varner wasn't the only one to speak out after the show.
At first, Probst "wasn't certain" what Varner had said. "My brain had to rewind and play it back. And if you watch the reaction at Tribal, Zeke's tribemates seemed to go through the same moment," the host told Entertainment Weekly after Wednesday's episode aired. "They heard it...but had to process it...and then once it landed they responded quite vocally. And while they were sharing their feelings with Varner, I was still running it in my head. This...just...happened."
"In 34 seasons of Survivor, I have rarely, if ever, personally commented on what is said or done in the game. But this is a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries. I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was OK on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line," he said. "I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel."
Probst added, "You just don't do that to someone."
Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, issued a statement defending Smith and condemning Varner's behavior on the show. "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," Adams said. "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."
Smith, meanwhile, shared his side via The Hollywood Reporter.
"I remember walking into Tribal Council that night. I remember the smell of the kerosene in our torches," Smith wrote. "I remember the smug smirk on [Varner's] 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," Smith said. "Something primal deep inside me screamed: run."
In that moment, "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 wrote. "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." Smith said he was "almost in a trance, unaware of what happened around me, trying to form a plan."
Smith had mentally prepared himself for the possibility of being outed before filming began. "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."
Smith added that he doesn't believe Varner hates transgender people, though his behavior may have indicated otherwise. And he's proud of how his tribemates stepped in to help. "After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am," Smith, a 28-year-old asset manager, asserted. "And after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is."
Whether Smith will accept Varner's apology remains to be seen.
"If we're being perfectly honest with one another, I've struggled with that forgiveness in the months following. I can't foresee us sipping martinis together in Fire Island. 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," Smith admitted. "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," Smith wrote, concluding, "I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much."