When it came down to crunch time in this week's Survivor: Game Changers, nothing was off-limits to avoid elimination. With the Nuku tribe facing Tribal Council and the elimination of a tribe member, Jeff Varner tried to use a little personal information he had on Zeke Smith to discredit his castmate and move the target off his own back. Key word: tried.
Varner told the rest of the tribe that "there was deception here," in relation to Zeke, before dropping the bombshell: "Why haven't you told anyone here that you're transgender?" Oof.
When his tribe mates responded with shocked silence, Varner doubled down. "What I'm showing is a deception," he said.
The rest of Nuku was appalled at Varner's comment, saying it was uncalled for and entirely inappropriate. "That is so wrong for you to bring that up," Tai said, while other castaways commented that Varner had made the game too personal. Andrea started crying.
"I'm arguing for my life, I feel like I've gotta throw everything at the wall," Varner told host Jeff Probst, who appeared to be speechless. "I don't want the perception to be that I'm this evil, hateful person."
"That is a giant leap of logic. ... You can't unring the bell," Probst said, after Varner continued to argue that Zeke keeping his secret "reveals the ability to deceive."
With tears in his eyes, Zeke pointed out that over two seasons of playing Survivor (he first participated on Season 33, Millennials vs. Gen X), he hasn't come out as transgender to anybody.
Varner later repeatedly apologized to Zeke, saying he was "ashamed" about what he had done. "I feel horrible," he said, adding that he thought Zeke was "out and loud and proud" among his friends and family members back home, even if he hadn't shared the information with his fellow castaways. He spent the remainder of Tribal Council with his head in his hands.
Earlier in the episode, Zeke and Varner had a bonding moment, and prior to Tribal Council, Zeke gave Varner the heads up that he was on the chopping block because Zeke didn't want to blindside him. Shortly thereafter, Varner tried to convince Andrea and Sarah that Zeke was working with Ozzy and couldn't be trusted.
After Varner's comment at Tribal, Zeke was relatively quiet, saying he thought they had made a connection earlier.
"Varner, it's really not cool, but you know, I'm fine," Zeke said, saying the reveal was "kind of crappy" but he had anticipated it might happen. "I think I've been fortunate to play Survivor as long as I've been playing it and not have that label. And one of the reasons why I didn't want to lead with that is I didn't want to be, like, the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player."
Despite the awkward situation, Zeke and Varner embraced as Varner was sent home — without an official vote, as Probst noted that it was a unanimous decision and an official vote wasn't needed. "I don't know what I was thinking," a sobbing Varner said in his final interview. "It was a horrible move."
In an interview with People that was reported by Hollywood Life, Smith says that, while he told producers during his audition that he was trans, he never intended to have a "coming-out" moment on the show.
"I'm not ashamed of being trans, but I didn't want that to be my story," Smith told the magazine.
Zeke tells People that he was "shell-shocked" by Varner's move. "I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are fraudulent. What's great is that nobody bought it," he says. "It's important people see he lost that fight. The message should be clear that hate will always lose."
Smith transitioned in college and credits Survivor with enabling him to gain confidence afterwards. "I realized I need to take on a big challenge to become the man I wanted to be," he says. "For some reason, that was Survivor."
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS.
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For information from GLAAD about how to be an effective transgender ally, go here.