When Jeff Varner outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as a transgender man during tribal council last night, Survivor fans were shocked—and not just by Varner's stunningly desperate decision to sell out an ally in such an ugly and unfairly personal way.
The greater shock came from the fact that, much like the show's signature tribal council move, we were hit with a #blindside of our very own courtesy of CBS' decision not to work the shocking event into any of the promotional material leading up to the episode. There was no tease of the most dramatic tribal council ever, no foreshadowing in the episode itself—hell, even the episode's logline avoided any passing reference to tribal council.
At a time when the Bachelor franchise can't stop bending over backwards to pat itself on the back for finally casting its first non-white lead in 33 combined seasons with Rachel Lindsay's upcoming stint as The Bachelorette and The Real World has completed its transformation from thought-provoking social experiment to tawdry voyeurism, Survivor's refusal to exploit and capitalize on such a raw and personal moment is downright revolutionary and belies a progressive spirit that can't be overlooked.
Whereas other shows might pounce on the opportunity to promote their first ever trans player, earning themselves some praise in the press and likely a few more eyeballs on premiere night in the process, the powers that be at Survivor made the thoughtful choice to let Zeke decide when that part of his story would be told—if ever. "I met Zeke in casting and loved him...We knew we were doing Millennials vs. Gen X as a theme and we wanted him on the Millennials tribe immediately," host and executive producer Jeff Probst admitted to Entertainment Weekly. "It wasn't until after he left that I was told he was transgender. From that point forward we agreed that if his story was to be told, he would be the one to decide when, where, and how."
While Varner ultimately robbed Zeke the autonomy to tell his story in his own way at his own pace, Probst was quick to point out that the hesitancy at revealing all was never based in fear or deceit.
"I have to add it was never a question of Zeke being worried his story would come out," the host said. "Zeke is a massive Survivor fan and his point with us was very clear—he wanted to be seen as a Survivor player. Not the first transgender Survivor player. I really respected that distinction and I understood it."
Just as this isn't Zeke's first time as a contestant on the game show, it also isn't the first time he's found himself at the center of an authentic, human moment that transcended the game. During his first season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, Zeke formed a bond with Gen X-er Bret LaBelle, a cop from Boston in his 40s, who confided in Zeke (and, ultimately, the world) that he was a gay man as well, relating his experience growing up gay in a wildly different generation. Again, the show adhered to its policy of allowing contestants to reveal their full story as they see fit, rather than tokenizing them from the onset.
"This is also an example of what happens if you don't push people to 'tell their story.' People will talk if they want, when they want to," Probst told EW at the time. "We never ever pressed Bret to tell us his story. Bret clearly felt safe with Zeke, which also says a lot about Zeke, and he opened up. It was beautiful."
As Probst explained, this choice to document, rather than produce, the moments stems from the top down. "I also have to acknowledge that CBS is a pretty amazing partner in Survivor," he said. "They never press us to exploit anything or 'make a moment happen.' They trust in the format as much as we do."
While the show hasn't been without its missteps—nothing that's run for 34 seasons and counting can expect to have a perfect record, and the less we talk about Cook Islands, AKA the season they divided tribes by race, the better—Survivor has admirably spent its near-two decade run bringing people together from every race, age, sexual orientation and social class to force them to look past their differences and work together as equals. Hell, their inaugural Sole Survivor, way back in 2000, was openly gay Richard Hatch!
Following Zeke's televised outing, the show has faced criticisms over how they handled the presentation. Some argued that they didn't do enough to hold Varner accountable, other have questioned the decision to air the tribal council sequence at all. While those points may have some validity to them, we'll let the one person whose opinion matters most weigh in: Zeke.
"I've been granted unprecedented autonomy in how I want to tell my story," he assured the audience during his recent visit to The Talk. "We started having conversations all the way back in Fiji nine months ago about the care with which this episode was going to be handled...I was really proud of how I responded...I also thought that by showing what happened maybe it wouldn't happen to someone else and something good could come of it."
Varner's ugly decision has dominated talk since the episode aired, but there was another moment at that tribal council that perhaps should be the true takeaway. When Sarah Lacina, the cop from an admittedly conservative Midwestern background, turned to Zeke, tears in her eyes and expressed how grateful she was to have met Zeke as Zeke and how, despite her limited exposure to anyone from the LGBT community, she'd never see him any differently, marking a realization that she'd significantly grown as a person thanks to the game, she made the greatest case yet for the cultural power Survivor possesses. Is it Zeke's responsibility to help others change? Not in the slightest. But if the game was able to have that profound of an effect on one of its players, imagine the change and acceptance being fostered amongst the viewing audience at home.
Take note, reality TV producers. That's how you outwit, outplay, outlast your competition.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.