The episode's tribal council climax appeared to catch everyone by surprise as player Jeff Varner, an openly gay man, outed Zeke Smith in an apparent attempt to stay in the game, alluding to "deception" among the group, The Washington Post reported. "But as a viewer to that moment, I found his ability to still find some level of humanity for someone who had just injured him so severely, maybe his crowning moment".
Themed "Game Changers", this season featured 20 returning castaways who divide into tribes to compete in a variety of challenges. Varner was immediately criticized by other players.
"I knew that Varner's actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him", Smith wrote.
Some also blamed CBS, which filmed the episode months ago and could have edited the segment out, but chose to air it anyway. He attempted to save himself by casting suspicion on other tribe mates, including Smith.
Many cast members seemed upset at Varner for outing Smith, and once he realized his mistake, Varner tried to explain his reasoning.
Several of the contestants cried in a seemingly authentic display of empathy for Smith.
"Transitioning is a long process and a very hard process", he said. "While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a unsafe stereotype on a global platform".
On Zeke's calm reaction to the outing, Probst commented, "I was also very impressed with the compassion Zeke showed Varner". He said he had "a complete and total breakdown" after his statement that was not shown on TV.
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Varner, who is gay, shared the information during an emotional Tribal Council on "Survivor: Game Changers". Even host Jeff Probst argued with Varner about what he had done and after a lot of trying to get himself out of the situation, Varner eventually apologized to Smith.
He hugged Smith, who said "It's OK, man".
In a Q&A with Probst that also dropped late Wednesday, the show host told Entertainment Weekly that Smith's transgender identity was never going to be a part of the show unless Smith made it one.
Zeke said, "I didn't want to be the trans Survivor player - I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor" and admitted he thought someone might pick up on it. Zeke said he would have talked about it if anyone had noticed and brought it up but added it was "crappy" the way it came out.
"There is deception here", Varner said.
"Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender", he asked.
"I hope that this launches a conversation, specifically in North Carolina, that we should acknowledge the humanity and dignity of trans people", Varner added.
"I got to a point where I stopped telling people, because when people know that about you, that's sort of who you are".