Tonight Survivor witnessed one of its lowest moments from one of its most beloved or should I say ex-beloved characters. It may be all for the better in the end given the way it was handled by everyone involved, but this was a horrific and yes even “malicious” act from Jeff Varner that will not go down well at all in the Survivor history books.
You’ve probably heard about it by now but in case you haven’t, on the sixth episode of Survivor Game Changers titled “What Happened On Exile, Stays On Exile”, at tribal council while one contestant, Jeff Varner, was fighting to stay alive in the game, he decided it to be a good idea to out another contestant, Zeke Smith, as being transgender.
For the uninitiated, nobody in the Survivor fan-community knew before tonight that Zeke Smith was transgender and it sure as hell wasn’t Jeff’s business to tell. Zeke’s reason for keeping it a secret as he has done throughout most of his life, is that he didn’t want it to define him. The Game Changers contestant elegantly said after the incident “When people know that about you, that’s sort of who you are. There are questions people ask. People want to know about your life and they want to know about this and that. It sort of overwhelms everything else that they know about you… One of the reasons why I didn’t want to lead with that is I didn’t want to be like the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player.”
Fortunately for Zeke, this horrific incident comes in his second season, so he’s built up enough of a reputation as not just a well-liked Survivor player but quite the capable one as well with a lot of potential winner’s upside. Because it’s his second season playing the game, the New York native will never be known as Zeke the transgender Survivor player and will forever be known as Zeke, the amazing Survivor player, character and human being. Having said that, if Zeke wanted to reveal to us in his second season after already establishing himself in the fan community of Survivor Millennials vs. Gen X that he was transgender, it was his business to tell and not anyone else’s.
The initial act from Jeff of trying to throw Zeke under the bus for a ludicrous reason to try and save himself was horrendous enough, but he only dug himself a deeper hole the more he kept on talking. When host of the show Jeff Probst questioned why he would do such a thing Varner responded by saying, “To show that he is capable of deception”. That was virtually the worst thing that he could of possibly said. Regardless of how much he wanted to save himself in the game and make it to jury, trying to throw Zeke under the bus for being “deceptive” for not telling people he had just met 18 days earlier something very personal about his life that he hasn’t even told people he knows very well in his real life is utterly revolting and disgusting. As much as this was an attempt to walk back what he had said, it just made matters worse and proved to be the abomination that has killed Jeff Varner’s Survivor career.
Without even getting into a deep dive of the sexual identity of Jeff Varner (who is gay himself), the Californian should have known that if Zeke wasn’t telling anyone that he was transgender that there was probably a reason for it. And that reason wasn’t about him being “deceptive” or “manipulative”. That reason was because he didn’t want to be known as Zeke the transgender Survivor player; he wanted to be known as Zeke the Survivor player. The fact that Jeff Varner was the only other castaway in two seasons that knew about it, highlights that it wasn’t just a matter of being “deceptive”, it was a matter of it being something that Zeke was uncomfortable disclosing to others because he didn’t want it to define who he was; especially not on a television show where millions of viewers are commentating on his every move.
Having said all of the above, in a time where a bigot named Donald Trump rules over the United States of America, the other Survivor players at tribal council and Probst did a wonderful job at completely bashing and condemning what Varner had just done. Andrea Boehlke, a co-host of People Now and Tai Trang, another man on the show who happens to be gay, instantly burst into tears as they yelled back at Varner. Tai screamed “Nobody have the right to out anybody!” while a tearful Andrea yelled “That’s personal! You didn’t have to do that!”. The usually so irrational Debbie Wanner was suddenly a million times more rational than Varner and was equally angry in saying, “It was for Zeke to discuss when he was comfortable discussing it!”. Through all of this Zeke remained silent, as did Jeff Probst who played a phenomenal role in just letting the conversation flow organically without him orchestrating the direction of where things would go. Then it was Ozzy Lusth‘s turn to pile on the distasteful act, saying “Jeff you should be ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’re willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars. It’s like, you’re playing with people’s lives at this point”. And after Zeke spoke some very wise words about how fortunate he was to play Survivor and revealing the incredibly sound reason as to why he wanted to keep it all a secret, Sarah Lacina spoke what I thought to be possibly the most beautiful words of the entire evening. After underlining Jeff’s actions as a “malicious attack” she went on to talk about her own experiences living in a US city with very little diversity and not having the same exposure to the LGBT community that others may have had. She then disclosed, “The fact that I can love Zeke so much — and it doesn’t change anything for me — makes me realize I’ve grown huge as a person… The metamorphosis I’ve even made as a person that I didn’t realize until this minute is invaluable”. Thanks to the work done by each and every other player sitting at that tribal council, the host of the show Jeff Probst and Zeke’s calm and collected words of wisdom, the conversation about what it is like to be transgender has moved in the right direction and has sparked a discussion that needed to be had. All the conversations that have been had since have all moved in the right direction. Parents can even use this as a great way to discuss concepts of bullying, tolerance and LGBT rights with their children watching the show.
Among some of the highly positive post-episode discussion came from Zeke himself who posted to Twitter about how to become a better ally to trans people.
As for his relationship with Varner, in an interview with People Now, Zeke had some more wise words to say on the matter but also spoke about just how hard it’s been to forgive Varner for what he did. “In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do was accept his apology and say that we’d find a way to work it out, but I don’t really – I really struggle with forgiving him every day” Zeke said. “But I think forgiveness is about hope – hope that he understands why what he did was wrong, hope that he doesn’t ever do something like this again and hope that whatever compelled him to give into his worst instincts in a dark moment is resolved for him,” he continues. “I do wish him the best, I just think I wish him the best from afar.”
Up until tonight Jeff Varner was one of my favourite Survivor characters and because of this horrific moment from the Californian native I feel embarrassed to say it. Always elegant when he speaks, Jeff was just a really funny guy and a really funny character on the show. In three seperate seasons, he never showed any sign of any sort of bigotry, ignorance or stupidty until tonight. Sadly, this was a terrible way to end his Survivor career and he deserved the humiliation Jeff Probst brought about by not even letting anyone vote and instead just eliminating Varner on the spot right then and there. It’s safe to say Jeff Varner is no longer one of my favourite characters on the show and in the blink of an eye has actually become my least favourite character from the past two seasons. Jeff is just horribly misguided and if he thinks that he is an ally for transgender people and LGBT rights like he said in the episode, he has a long, long way to go in that department.
Jeff Varner was certainly in the wrong tonight in outing Zeke as being transgender but it sparked a conversation that needed to be had and made for the most socially significant episode in Survivor history. The role the other players in the game had in condemning Jeff’s actions as well as the elegant words that Zeke had to say himself, were both absolutely massive. As far as the future goes, this episode and all that it brought about has the potential to impact and inspire more people and more awareness than any other moment in the show’s thirty-four season history.