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Zeke, Varner, Probst, and Survivor: new details and thoughts

Zeke, Varner, Probst, and Survivor: new details and thoughts
Jeff Varner, left, and Zeke Smith, top right, at Tribal Council during episode 7 of Survivor Game Changers. (Photo by Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment)

In the day that followed Jeff Varner’s decision to out Zeke Smith on Survivor Game Changers, there has been new information about what transpired on the episode.

Most importantly, we heard from Zeke: in a beautifully written essay that you really should read if you have not already, and on The Talk, an excerpt of which I’ve transcribed below. He is the most important person in all of this, and we should not lose sight of that.

This story aggregates some of the new information, which answers many of the questions I had yesterday while watching and writing. At the end, it also includes two detailed responses to what I wrote.

That’s because I’ve also heard from many of you, on social media and elsewhere, who have different takes than I did. I appreciate all those comments, whether they’re agreement or criticism. I also appreciate something that a reader, Emily, mentioned in a comment,

“You have such great readers. I’ve only seen one comment that was anything close to anti-trans (and could just be some unmalicious ignorance). I had steeled myself to see a big debate over someone being trans/whether ‘transgender’ really is a thing, etc., but instead everyone here has had a full heart for Zeke and what he was going through that night. So awesome!!”

I couldn’t agree more: the reaction and support for Zeke has been terrific, here and in general. There have been some hateful voices, yes, but they were drowned out by all of the love and support.

That started with Zeke’s tribemates, who were universally supportive and instantly condemned what Varner did. While the moment was horrific, the response has been wonderful.

Details about Survivor Game Changers’ episode 6

Why CBS aired Varner’s outing of Zeke

The network said this in a statement released to THR:

“After the tribal council scene in last night’s Survivor was filmed, we consulted with Zeke Smith and with GLAAD in advance of the broadcast, including the issue of how Zeke would tell his story after the episode aired. This is his second consecutive season on Survivor. 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. We support how  Jeff Probst and the producers handled a very sensitive situation and marvel at the grace Zeke exhibited under extraordinary circumstances. We have also respect for how Jeff Varner has expressed remorse for his mistake, both in the episode and in his subsequent dialogue with the media. 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.”

Did Zeke consent to the episode being broadcast?

On The Talk today, Julie Chen actually asked him directly, and Zeke said this:

“In the aftermath of being outed, I’ve been granted unprecedented autonomy in how I wanted to tell my story. 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 came to Jeff and asked if I could write a personal essay about what happened, and he immediately said yes. And I was really proud of how I responded, and I wanted the world to see how much I’ve grown. And I also thought by showing what happened, maybe it wouldn’t happen to someone else, and maybe some good could come of it.”

Elsewhere, Probst said, quite clearly: “we agreed that if his story was to be told, he would be the one to decide when, where, and how.”

Update: Probst told The New York Times:

“The idea of not airing this never came up. Zeke never asked for that. While he certainly did not have a hand in editing the show, Zeke and I have talked for nine months.”

And Probst told Katie Couric:

“Had [Zeke] brought it up, I don’t know what we would have done. He never did.”

How did Jeff Varner find out?

Let’s be clear: How Jeff found out that Zeke previously transitioned does not change what Varner chose to do with the information. Period.

Varner told Gordon Holmes that Zeke did not tell him, and said:

“I don’t want to talk about how I knew, because in respect to Zeke, I don’t think that’s the right direction to go.”

Update: Katie Couric asked Probst, “So no one in the cast, Jeff, was aware that Zeke is transgender?” Probst said, “Well, if they did, they had not brought it up. It had not been a topic.”

What did producers know?

The production—from casting to producers on the beach—knew Zeke had transitioned.

Jeff Probst says that casting knew, though Probst wasn’t told until after his first in-person interview with Zeke, and, as I quoted him saying above, Probst said it was Zeke’s decision “when, where, and how.”

Update: Katie Couric asked Probst, “You had absolutely no inkling, Jeff, that this was going to transpire?” Probst said, “Zero.”

Did Varner tell producers what he was going to do?

Asked explicitly if he told producers he would out Zeke at Tribal, Varner told EW this story about how he viewed Zeke (click the link to read the full version):

“No. Never. In fact, I said the opposite. Zeke had shot Millennials vs. Gen X. It hadn’t aired yet, so when we went to Fiji I didn’t know who he was. And my immediate thought was, who are you? What did you do to get here? There is something in your game that made you worthy of being here, and who are you? And it heightened my investigation into him. In pre-game, I studied Zeke. I watched his every move. I kept thinking, Russell Hantz.

[…] I knew that he was lying to me, and not about his gender identity. I’m talking about his gameplay. I just felt like there’s no way a trans man is coming on Survivor and nobody knows who he is. In my mind, Zeke was out, he was loud, he was proud. All of the viewers of Millennials vs. Gen X knew who he was. He was the new Russell Hantz and I misjudged that—totally. So when I was saying, ‘You guys don’t know what’s going on here,’ I was talking to the six in front of us because I knew that the producers knew about Zeke, I knew the audience knew about Zeke, I thought CBS has been promoting Zeke as the first transgender contestant and I was so excited that he was there, that it took me a minute to realize, what did I do wrong? I’m revealing the new Russell Hantz to you guys! Wake up and see what’s here.”

However, Varner told CarterMatt that he did discuss Zeke’s gender identity with producers on the beach:

“I did chat with producers during the game about that, and I said that I thought it was beautiful and I celebrated it. There is a lot of sound on tape of me talking about how wonderful it is and how happy I was for him. Zeke never came out and told me personally, but I saw signals and little signs throughout the game that confirmed it, but not in any way that ever made me want to use it as a card in the game. Ever.

It was never my intention, and I was very clear with producers on that during my interviews — it didn’t make any difference to me, and it’s not something that I wanted to use in the context of the game. It made zero difference to me.”

What Varner has been saying

In various interviews linked here, Varner repeatedly takes responsibility, apologies, and says the focus should be on Zeke. For someone who said absolutely the wrong thing at Tribal Council almost a year ago, Varner is saying the right things today.

The most direct version I’ve read was in Gordon Holmes’ interview:

“I assaulted Zeke that night, outting someone is assault. It robs them of so much. It stigmatizes them and it shames them. It forces them back in and that’s the opposite of what needs to happen. I’m devastated. I will forever be sorry and do…I’ll talk to you in the future about what I’m doing and where I’m headed…but today I just want to make sure that this is all about Zeke.”

Varner also told Gordon:

“I’m not ashamed to tell you that coming out of this I had thoughts of suicide. What I’d done is horrible.”

Have there been consequences for Varner?

Yes: “He was fired Thursday from his job as a real estate agent,” The Greensboro News & Record reported.

Varner told the paper that his employer—who did not comment—told him that he’s “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

What support did CBS offer?

The Greensboro News & Record reported that “Varner said that CBS paid for therapy for both he and Smith.”

Two responses to my story

My reaction to 1) Jeff Probst’s handling of the situation and 2) Sarah’s Tribal Council comments resulted in a lot of criticism—criticism that I truly appreciate.

While I am absolutely committed to ensuring that facts and verifiable information published here are correct, I am also very aware that my analysis and opinions are completely subjective, and that reasonable people can disagree sharply about the same piece of evidence—in this case, an episode of Survivor. Two things:

  1. My reaction to last night’s episode was clearly informed by the growing lack of trust I have in Jeff Probst to place people’s emotional and physical well-being above the needs of the show. Probst is a wonderful steward for the show he is now in charge of, and in no way do I think that he’s being malicious; in fact, everything he says suggests he’s well-intentioned. But he has pushed too far and made critical errors, and has demonstrated a massive blind spot when it comes to issues of gender. I do think Probst made mistakes—not stopping Tribal immediately, not having a true vote. And as a person with great power (he runs one of the 10 most-popular television shows in the United States), I think be should be questioned about his decisions. But I can also appreciate that he was responding in the moment the best way he knew how. Most of all, hearing that Zeke appreciated how Probst handled Tribal convinces me that Probst did an excellent job of managing the fallout and conversation.
  2. My reaction to Sarah’s speech—on Twitter and then here—now seems too strong and misguided. As I wrote both times, I have no doubt that Sarah’s heart was in the right place. Some of her specific words and phrases were echoes of not-exactly-supportive comments I’ve heard far too often in the past. That prevented me from seeing what Vox’s Caroline Framke explained very eloquently: that Sarah “stumbled into a moment that took even her by surprise.” That’s what I missed: these were unformed, unfiltered thoughts delivered with raw emotion. And I’d rather have Sarah as an ally who speaks imperfectly than someone who stays quiet.

The following two responses are ones that particularly helped me see this from a different angle.

The dangers of over-policing

A reader who asked to not have his name used wrote this to me via e-mail, and I asked permission to publish it, in part because it really made me think about what I wrote:

I’m a fan of your writing but you got the Survivor/Zeke issue completely wrong.

1) The reason many of us in the LGBT community – and far beyond – found the episode ultimately uplifting and even “beautiful” was because the instant and vehement reaction of the tribe members to what Varner did was so real and so noble. Everyone of them, from vastly different walks of life, was horrified by this attack on a trans person and, in their own ways, rose to condemn it and defend Zeke.

2) Your worst criticisms were the ones of Probst, who handled all this with perfection. The most off-base of your criticisms was that he didn’t immediately demand that Zeke weigh in, but instead allowed him to compose himself and let the other tribe members object. Had he gone immediately to Zeke and demanded a reaction, that would have been exploitative and insensitive in the extreme. In his amazingly written essay, Zeke himself praised Probst’s reaction to the sky, emphasizing how grateful he was that Probst let him breathe and formulate a reaction rather than immediately asking him about it.

3) What pissed me off most about your analysis was your attack on Sarah. This is the kind of bullshit over-policing of language that causes resentment and self-censorship.

Sarah’s reaction was incredibly authentic. She’s a police officer from a Midwestern town, and was explaining how getting to know Zeke has changed her views of trans people. This is *exactly* what one wants to hear when one is in a marginalized minority.

Worse, you completely distorted the meaning of what she said: “I’m so glad that I got to know you for Zeke and not what you were afraid of us knowing you as, and I’ll never look at you that way.”

Contrary to your jaded interpretation, she was not saying that being trans is something to fear or that she won’t look at him as a trans person (“that way”).

She was directly referencing Zeke’s own expressed concern: that if people knew he were trans, they would only look at him as “the trans Survivor player” rather than just “Zeke.” She was reassuring him: you have nothing to fear; we see you as the human being and man that you are, not as “the trans player.” She didn’t invent these “fears” – Zeke had just expressed them, and she was directly addressing them.

What I appreciate about you is your insightful, unblinking analysis of the social implications of reality shows, including its tolerance for and exploitation of bigotry.

But in this case, you invented offense and bigotry where none existed (except from Varner). Your hostility toward Probst—your not-invalid belief that he has in the past condoned and spread bigotry, especially sexism—completely colored how you viewed this episode.

The reaction everywhere is almost universal, and it’s the opposite of yours: that Probst, the show and the other tribe members handled this episode in an inspiring way. Zeke himself thinks that.

That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, of course. Sometimes it’s the majority that’s wrong. But I really hope it prompts you to seriously re-consider your views of what happened.”

Justin McArthur on why it was ‘a beautiful and groundbreaking moment’

An early comment on my story came from Justin McArthur, and he expanded on that comment for publication here:

“Zeke was outed on national television by somebody that should have been considered an ally. And yet, after all of this, I am not outraged like so many are. As terrible as it was, I think the outcome gave us a beautiful and groundbreaking moment.

America grew to love Zeke as a smart and strategic player first. We grew to know him with no labels. I think with our current political climate, it is so important to show that transgender people are everywhere. They have been here this whole time with no issues. As proven last night, often we don’t even notice. This Survivor episode perfectly captured that. And it is perfect because we got to know him as person first without the fact that he is transgender coming into play.  And now that we know, nothing changed. We still love him. He is the same person as before.

When the camera cut to Sarah explaining how she felt, I think she echoed how many Americans feel right now. That was Sarah explaining these emotions in the spur of the moment the best way she can. She represents a large part of America that didn’t grow up around the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, she has to embrace this now and she is working through her feelings and explaining them the best way she can.

It was real and heartfelt. Forget the political correctness. To me, it doesn’t matter how she gets there, as long as she gets there. It was such a raw, beautiful moment. It reminded me of Rudy explaining his friendship with Richard from season one. He loved Richard and he expressed that in a way that would be considered offensive by today’s standards.

I think Zeke is going to do great things. He is so loved and he will be the face that so many transgender people can look up to. I would even argue that this is setting him up to be the sole survivor. Zeke will be fine. He is a beautiful, resilient soul. He is a winner.

I hope this is an eye opener for a lot of people. I hope it makes people realize that it doesn’t matter what bathroom you use. It doesn’t matter what gender you are born. You don’t even have to understand it. What matters we are all here together. And people who are different are still human. If you strip away the labels and negative stigmas, last night’s Survivor showed us that we are all just people. We are human’s first, labels second. And to me, that is the ultimate game changer.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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