'Survivor' alum Zeke Smith reflects on being outed as transgender on the show

Smith, whose gender identity was revealed in 2017 by a fellow contestant, said that he was "treated afterwards with an abundance of white-male privilege."
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X
Zeke Smith in an episode of "Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X."CBS via Getty Images
By Gwen Aviles

Zeke Smith, a "Survivor" contestant who was outed as transgender on the show in 2017, recently reflected on his experience, stating that he would have been less accepted if he were a Black transgender woman because "the show was unequivocally made through a white male lens."

"I both played the game and was treated afterwards with an abundance of white-male privilege," Smith said during a virtual panel on LGBTQ identity on "Survivor" organized by the Soul Survivor Organization and hosted by Rob Has A Podcast and The A.V. Club.

"I think that because the show was unequivocally made through a white male lens, especially if you look historically at what we now know to be the culture of CBS," he added. "That is not a network that can have a critical look at stories outside of what they think is going to make a Midwestern mom comfortable."

Smith said this is the lens through which "Jeff makes the show." By Smith's account, Jeff Probst, the host and executive producer of "Survivor," told him not to be concerned with how audiences might view him upon learning he's transgender because Probst's mother had a favorable view of Smith after viewing the episode where fellow contestant Jeff Varner, an openly gay man, outed Smith as trans. Varner has since apologized to Smith and the trans community, calling what he did “assault.”

"I remember in our conversations trying to make sense of what was about to happen to me," Smith said. "He was saying: ‘You know, it’s going to be OK. I’ve shown my mom the episode, and my mom is my barometer of how the rest of the world will react. And she likes you.' And nothing against Jeff’s mom, she’s a wonderful lady ... but I do think that shows how limited it [the show] is."

Neither CBS nor Probst immediately responded to NBC News' requests for comment. However, CBS announced Monday that it will devote 25 percent of its script development budget to projects created or co-created by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) beginning with the 2021-22 development season, according to Variety.

Smith said that after he was outed, the cast and crew pretended his outing didn't happen and that he had "never felt so lonely" in his entire life. At the same time, Smith questioned whether his story would have been received differently by the show's audience and his fellow contestants if he did not present as a white male.

"I wonder if my story would have had the same impact that it had in opening people’s minds to transgender people if I were a Black trans woman," Smith said. "I think that not being visibly trans provided me a lot of cover in my first season. I think that if I was not white, if I was more femme presenting, if it was known that I was trans, I think I would have been the first person voted out at the millennials tribe."

Smith wrote a column in The Hollywood Reporter after the episode aired in which he discussed why he did not disclose his transition when he applied to the show, saying, "I wanted the show to desire me as a game player and an eccentric storyteller, not as 'The First Trans 'Survivor' Player.'"

He was joined by fellow Survivor alums Vince Moua, Lyrsa Torres, Brice Izyah and Missy Byrd who also called for greater diversity on the show during the Wednesday panel.

Izyah, who became the first openly gay Black man to compete on "Survivor" in 2014, echoed Smith's comments, stating that LGBTQ contestants are targeted for elimination.

"Why do so many of us seem to go in the first few votes? Why are we always targeted first?” Izyah said. “I think a lot of people have turned a blind eye to our existence. And so, going out there and being the only LGBTQ person — and just living our truth — if we’re bothering you, we’re just being ourselves. And I think we can pay the price for that.”

Variety reported that CBS pulled "Survivor" from its fall 2020-21 lineup as production was delayed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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