Heartbreaking Trans Outing on Survivor an Opportunity for Dialogue

The show Survivor is one of my guilty pleasures. From the psychology to the lush landscapes, I simply love it. In this 34th season, the cast is made up of “game changers” who have played on previous seasons and made huge impacts.

I’ve always enjoyed watching people of various backgrounds come together on the show and gain a new appreciation for others. With a few notable exceptions (such as Will’s verbal attacks on Shirin), the castaways generally seem to figure out ways through their differences.

Wednesday night’s episode, however, was different: a castmember, Zeke, was not only outed as being transgender, but was also accused of being deceptive because of it.

You can see the clip here.

This is Zeke’s second season on the show (back to back!), and he has quickly become one of my all-time favorites.  He is typically very fun, engaged, charismatic, and jovial. Just seeing him shrink inside of himself at the moment of the outing was absolutely heartbreaking. At the same time, once the shock wore off for everyone, I was relieved to see the fellow cast and the host, Jeff Probst, respond in outrage at Jeff Varner (the contestant who outed him) and in love for Zeke.

Zeke’s response, not only in the moment but also in the time around the episode airing, has been amazingly strong and composed. When the outing happened, Zeke immediately began working with CBS and GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program. Typically, cast members are not allowed to do media until they are voted off the show, but Zeke has been doing many interviews both before and after the episode aired in an effort to craft the narrative on his terms.

He wrote an extremely beautiful guest column on his journey and experience as a trans man, and his reflections on what happened on the episode and how it plays into the larger national context:

“But in calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. In proclaiming “Zeke is not the guy you think he is” and that “there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,” Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives.”

While watching the scene, I also felt a pang of remorse for Jeff Varner. He had been one of my favorite cast members through his 3 seasons of playing, and I knew as soon as those words were uttered what a mistake he made for himself—not just on the show (he was removed without a formal vote), but also in his life. While for many this has lifted Zeke up in their eyes, Jeff’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair.

What surprised me most in the moment is that Jeff is out as a gay man. It highlighted for me that belonging to a community isn’t enough—you never have the right to speak for anyone else in it.

Jeff wrote an open apology letter to Zeke that reads, in part:

“Let me be clear, outing someone is assault. It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger. It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime.”

I have been encouraged to see the overwhelming outpouring of support for Zeke, and I wish him continued strength as he pushes through this difficult experience in an effort to bring awareness and reduce stigma for trans people everywhere.


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