On Wednesday night's episode of Survivor: Game Changers, contestant Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender as he attempted to prevent his own elimination. "There is deception here. Deceptions on levels," Varner said before turning to Smith and asking, "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?"
"It's a horrible thing to do to another human being," Varner told BuzzFeed News Thursday morning. "When you out someone, you marginalize them, you stigmatize them, you shame them, you push them into the shadows, you force them to not be their authentic self. You don't allow them to fit in and that's a horrific place to be. I honestly believe that outing someone is assault — if you look at an assault victim, the scars they carry their whole life are very similar to this. I am profoundly sorry, and I wish that there's something I could do to make it right."
During the episode, Varner's question was first met with shock and then quickly derision from his fellow contestants. Soon enough, the show's audience on social media echoed their sentiments. "Never been more disgusted by a Survivor castaway than Jeff Varner at last night's tribal. Totally reprehensible," tweeted Michelle Jones. "Varner saying 'I advocate for the rights of trans people' is like making a racist joke and saying, 'my best friend is black!'" wrote Katie Bruce. Even the show's usually neutral host, Jeff Probst, let it be known that Varner, who said he's mostly avoided social media since the episode aired, crossed the line. "I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances," he told Entertainment Weekly.
After he asked the question, Varner immediately — and aggressively — tried to walk back on what he did, saying he wasn't trying to imply Smith was a deceptive person because of his decision to not come out as trans on the show. Varner told BuzzFeed News he was operating under the belief that Smith had come out during his introductory season of Survivor, which aired while they were filming Game Changers. "I completely misjudged it. It was a massive mistake," Varner said of that assumption. "I will never make an excuse for what happened, I will never defend my actions. It was absolutely the wrong thing to do."
Before Varner was voted off, he hugged Smith, and he also said they've spoken since filming ended. "He's been nothing but gracious and forgiving," Varner said. "He said he saw me as much of a victim as him." But in a column Smith wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, he described the outing as malicious: "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."
When presented with Smith's words, Varner replied: "That's unfortunate ... I'm not sure who got in his ear and why it's headed that way, but none of that matters because at the end of the day, Zeke has every right to react however he needs to react. I give him all the space in the world to do that. If he wants to shoot me, I'll hand him the gun. I deserve this."
CBS's decision to air Smith's outing is one some have questioned. In a statement, GLAAD said its "Transgender Media Program worked with Zeke Smith and CBS for several months to ensure that when the episode aired Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience."
In a statement, CBS said, "From his first season through the current edition, we have always been guided by the principle that this is his story to tell, and it remains so," CBS said of Smith. "In the end, we believe this episode, accompanied by Zeke’s own remarkable writing and speaking on the subject, has provided an unexpected but important dialogue about acceptance and treating transgender people with respect."
Given he's still on Survivor: Game Changers, Smith wasn't available for interviews, but he did appear on CBS's The Talk on Thursday. "In the aftermath of being outed, I’ve been granted unprecedented autonomy in how I wanted to tell my story,” Smith said. “We started having conversations ... nine months ago about the care with which this episode was going to be handled. I wanted the world to see how much I’d grown and I also thought by showing what happened, maybe it wouldn’t happen to somebody else and something good could come of it.”