”It became a worldwide cultural moment,” host Jeff Probst told the audience at the live “Survivor: Game Changers” finale, referring to the disappointing and shocking moment when Jeff Varner randomly outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender on the April 12 episode.
The emotional tribal council was heartbreaking for Smith, who had not publicly come out as trans at that point, but it ultimately led to an important discussion about supporting people who are trying to be their authentic selves.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen to my world. I didn’t know what the reaction was going to be,” Smith said during Season 34’s reunion show on Wednesday night. “What this experience has shown me is I have so much love in my life ... I’ve never felt as loved as I do right now.”
The 29-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, was blindsided by the outing, but has since come to realize that the moment has only made him stronger.
“When I transitioned, I was hit with a pretty big bout of depression, like a lot of people are, and I almost failed out of Harvard, I was living at home, I was alone, I was pretty helpless. And I started watching ‘Survivor,’ and I binged 20 seasons, and it took me away,” Smith said. “I got to go on an adventures with Ozzy [Lusth] and Cirie [Fields[ and with Sandra [Diaz-Twine] and it got me through. And, slowly, I got to put my life back together, but there was something ― there was a courage and a boldness ... something inside of me knew I had to go play ‘Survivor.’ And I found that courage and that boldness in Fiji. I found it on the beaches. And in so many ways, ‘Survivor’ has given me my life back.”
As for Varner’s thoughts on the backlash, he, of course, knows he was in the wrong. “This has been very difficult. I got hit hard,” he said. “It was really ugly for a period of time.”
But then, as Varner explained, it changed after he admitted to his mistake and turned it into something positive.
“There’s a book in the works that I’m working on, it’s entitled Surviving Shame,” he added, to the surprise of some of his castmates. “And you get the first copy,” Varner told Probst.
“I love that you’re turning this into something positive,” Probst concluded.
Let’s hope more meaningful conversations continue.