Survivor’s transgender star Zeke Smith opens up about the “terror” of coming out
Zeke Smith, the Survivor contestant who was outed as trans on the show to millions of viewers, has opened up about the “palpable terror” he felt.
Smith, 29, came out last month after fellow Survivor: Game Changers participant Jeff Varner, who is out as gay, told everyone on the show – and eight million viewers – that he was trans.
In a column for The Hollywood Reporter, Smith said that as he sat waiting for the episode which would change his life forever to air, he expected the worst.
“Snickering, genital speculation, sensationalistic ‘before and after’ photos – this is the treatment typically meted out to trans people in the public eye,” he said.
When the details of his time in Fiji were revealed, he thought: “This would be the treatment due me.”
The two-time Survivor contestant said he had decided before entering his first series, Millennials v Gen-X, that he would “incur an obligation to my community to speak responsibly and authentically” if his being trans came up.
“Though I chafed at this duty,” he said, “I certainly took it seriously.”
And late last year, the Oklahoma native – who moved to New York to get away from discrimination – fully came to terms with his fate, accepting it and the need to tell everyone around him.
“I finally accepted, to be outed well, I needed to submit to it. Around November, the feelings dam burst and out poured the pain and shame and embarrassments from childhood, adolescence and beyond.
“I prepared for Survivor with barbells; I prepared for this next adventure with booze-fueled confessions of my deepest intimacies to my friends.
“‘I’ve never told anyone this before…’ became my new catch phrase.”
He admitted that in the last moments before the show aired, he briefly regretted everything – but his family and friends kept him going.
“As I stood at the precipice, the countdown ticking closer to zero, I cursed my newfound openness.
“I raced to throw back up my walls, but my friends and family were prepared for my fear.
In those final moments, I boo-hooed like a damn baby watching beautiful videos of support and encouragement they sent.
“I no longer needed internal battlements as I had a battalion of love at my defence. No matter what the future held, I wouldn’t be alone.”
Turns out, the future wasn’t the dark dystopia Smith had expected – in fact, it went better than he’d ever dared to dream.
“Where we expected angry villagers wielding pitchforks, we confronted a sea of puppies and rainbows,” he said.
“We’d never seen a trans story responded to with such overwhelming outrage toward the wrongdoer and sympathy toward the wronged.
“Typically, trans victims of crimes far worse than what I endured are ridiculed and the perpetrators let off scot-free.”
He said even now, three weeks later, he was “still scratching my head to make sense of how I wasn’t subject to the coal raking usually received by trans people in the public eye.
But what surprised me most was the outpouring of love from the public.
“For two days I sat gobsmacked reading thousands of messages from people across the world. I apologise for not responding, but please know that your words were read and cherished.”
Looking to the future, Smith said he couldn’t help but feel positive.
“I am optimistic that this moment – both the example set by Survivor and “The Episode’s” response – will serve as a model for how trans people will be treated by the media in the future.
“To the trans person who enters the spotlight next, I hope you get it as good as I did.
“To the person after, I hope you are met with utter indifference.”