Hannah Shapiro was a runner-up on Survivor season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X. She'll be recapping Survivor season 34: Game Changers. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLilNessen.
(Editor's note: This article contains spoilers from episode six of Survivor: Game Changers.)
At Survivor: Game Changers' episode-six tribal council, millions of viewers watched Zeke Smith, a transgender man, being attacked in the most personal, grotesque way imaginable under the guise of a game-show move. Make no mistake: What Jeff Varner does to Zeke — outing him as trans without his consent — is no slip of the tongue. It's an attempt to humiliate him.
Varner walks into tribal knowing he's going home. His reaction to a situation of distress was to hurl his feeling of betrayal back at Zeke, who was previously a confidant.
"I really like you and I hope we can be friends," Varner tells Zeke in the beginning of the episode, after Zeke tells Varner he's sincere about working with him.
But at tribal, Varner tries to convince the tribe that Zeke's identity as a trans man is the biggest reason he's been deceptive.
"There is deception here," Varner says at tribal. "Deception on levels these guys don't even understand. There's more. Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender? What I'm showing is a deception."
Breaking down transgender stereotypes
I reached out to Nick Adams, Director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, in order to get a knowledgeable perspective on what just happened.
"Jeff Varner tried to use one of the worst stereotypes about transgender people to save his own skin at Tribal Council," Adams described. "He accused Zeke of being deceptive and lying to the the other players on the show because he didn't immediately disclose the fact that he is transgender when he started playing."
Moreover, Adams said, "this idea that transgender people are simply living their lives as their authentic selves are deceptive or lying or fooling people is one of the fundamental misconceptions of who transgender people are that lead directly to the sort of discrimination and often violence against us."
Zeke Smith didn't have to share his gender story
Full disclosure: Zeke is my friend. We played together on Survivor season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X. In order to understand the impact of this moment on my friend, you must understand something about Zeke. Zeke is one of the most well-spoken and capable men I know. He often teaches me about holding my own and not letting myself succumb to moments throughout the day. To see him immobile for the moments that he is — "on an island of his own" — is jarring. There is a tangible pain there, a tangible humiliation. And that is what I believe Varner meant to do at tribal. Beyond any game-move excuse, Varner wanted to humiliate Zeke and make him feel as awful as he did at that moment.
When Zeke and I starved on an island together, I did not know his gender history, and it didn't matter. Zeke always projected the utmost confidence, an almost unbreakable sense of self and drive. His strength and ability to form relationships was one of the many reasons I saw him as a huge competitor. Despite our shared dark sense of humor, I saw Zeke as quite different from me. I was a panic-attack-prone, social-anxiety-laden nerd who didn't always believe herself to be capable. Zeke was the epitome of cool — anxiety-free and confident. Zeke had bravado in everything he did in Fiji. He started fires, built shelters and caught tribe immunity idols with ease. He was brave. I was not.
Zeke had every right on my season of Survivor not to share that he was transgender, and had every right the next season to do the same.
That's why talking about your gender history is so complicated, Adams explained to me.
"What often happens with transgender people is that when you tell someone that you're transgender, instead of being seen more authentically, like when you disclose your sexual orientation to someone, your identity is often questioned," Adams says. "And now all of a sudden people want to know private details about [your] past. And may put an asterisk next to [your] name."
The reaction at the Nuku tribal council
Each night during our season, Zeke and I would wander down to the beach, cuddle in the sand and plot how we would get rid of all the other folks who were taking up space at camp. Zeke and I have become even closer off the island. He's one of the most brilliant, hard-working, thoughtful, empathetic and downright funny people I have ever met. He has become my person.
While Zeke being transgender does color in his history for me, it doesn't change the core of our friendship in the least. An important element of the tribal tonight was the incredible support Zeke found in his tribe mates. They refused to buy what Varner was selling. Varner presented them with hateful rhetoric, they responded with a firm show of love.
Understand that Zeke was still in a game for a million dollars. He had to balance being attacked, calming his tribemates and maintaining his head all within this context.
Zeke was able to be strong and articulate his thoughts in a way most wouldn't be in his situation. At the end of the episode, he says, "If metamorphosis is the word of the episode, I feel like I've seen such a metamorphosis of myself, over the past — I think today is day 52 that I've played Survivor. And I don't know that the scared kid that hit the mat in the marooning of 33 would be as calm as I am right now. But I have started two fires with just bamboo, I've won challenges, I've been part of blindsides. I've done all kinds of crazy stuff and I am a changed, stronger, better man today than I was then."
Zeke says that he's uncertain of the title of "role model," but it became clear that he's someone many young people will look up to after this moment.
Sarah Lacina, his ally on the show, was also especially brilliant. Sarah's empathy turned an ugly moment into a powerful message.
I'm just thankful that I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is. I've been with him for the last 18 days and he's super kick-ass. ... I'm from the midwest, I come from a very conservative background, it's not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender and things like that so I'm not exposed to it as much as these people are. And the fact that I can love this guy so much. And it doesn't change anything for me, makes me realize that I've grown huge as a person. Of course we want to come away with the million dollars but the metamorphosis that I've even made as a person that I didn't realize until this minute is invaluable.
There is no excuse for what happened tonight. Zeke, his friends, his family and the entire transgender community will feel the impact of what just aired for years to come. At tribal, Varner reveals Zeke's identity not just to his tribemates, but to the country — the last episode of Survivor reached nearly 9 million viewers. This 15-minute moment of television becomes Zeke's life.
Survivor is a heightened version of society. It highlights the ugliest parts of what we are as humans, but it also highlights the strength and love that emerges in awful situations. This will be a moment that will be digested and processed over the coming weeks. There is much to discuss. But for tonight: I'm proud of my best friend. I love him very much.