'Survivor's' Zeke Smith: Why Being Vulnerable Was Worth the Risk (Guest Column)

"I am optimistic that this moment will serve as a model for how trans people will be treated by the media in the future," writes Smith in a new column for THR.
Courtesy of CBS

[The following story contains spoilers through the 11th episode of Survivor: Game Changers.]

Three weeks after being outed by a competitor as transgender on national television, Zeke Smith's two-season run on CBS' Survivor is at an end. The Brooklyn-based Survivor super fan, who penned a heartfelt guest column about his experience for The Hollywood Reporter, was voted out in the 11th episode of the season, his torch snuffed after a combined 62 days of play time. Though many months have passed since his elimination occurred, very little time at all has passed since Zeke's outing was televised during what he refers to as "The Episode." In a follow-up guest column for THR, Smith reflects on the world's reaction to his outing, and details how he reached a place of "vulnerability" in the months leading up to "The Episode."

"Do you still have your willy? I mean, I wanted to know," a talk show host giggled referring to Caitlyn Jenner on April 11 — the day before "The Episode."

The audience laughed. My heart sank. In 12 hours, I'd be discussing my life's most exposing moment on a talk show and I knew my bathing suit area would be at the top of mind.

Snickering, genital speculation, sensationalistic "before and after" photos — this is the treatment typically meted out to trans people in the public eye, and in five minutes, when Survivor returned from commercial break and the world finally saw "The Episode," this would be the treatment due me.

I sat in palpable terror in a Los Angeles hotel room, gazing at my smudgy iPad screen displaying the East Coast CBS All Access feed transmitted from a friend's laptop through Google Hangouts on his cell phone, and thought back to where this insane ride began.

"We're not going to exploit you," Survivor host Jeff Probst promised me in a bungalow at a third-rate Fijian resort. "There will be those who want to, but I will fight them. I will never leave you hanging. Do you trust me?"

I quaked in my plastic chair. This meeting was far more serious than befitted my shirt's topless hula dancers. Survivor began as a goofy detour from my quiet life, but now I confronted a future for which I was wholly unprepared: I would be a central character on network television for a year, during the course of which I'd be epically outed as transgender. What the hell was I supposed to do now?

I resolved before I played that should my being trans become part of my Survivor narrative I would incur an obligation to my community to speak responsibly and authentically. Though I chafed at this duty, I certainly took it seriously. But the man in whose hands my grand public outing would become travesty or triumph was nevertheless a reality show producer, and I was but the dumbass who relinquished control of his public image.

"To get through the chaos, you'll need to build a bulwark of trust by being emotionally vulnerable with those you love," advised the expensive therapist for whom the show was footing the bill.

Vulnerable?

I just had my heart ripped out and managed to suck in my tears for the week and a half I remained on the island. I'd spent a lifetime building barriers guarding against wounds inflicted by others, and now facing the greatest onslaught of attack, this headshrinker expected me to pre-emptively expose myself to rejection.

"Just tell me what to say!" I shouted, exasperated, at Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, the man shepherding me into the spotlight. Even after months under his tutelage, I still stumbled over phrases like "disclose your gender history" and offered opinions that, he advised, would both offend the trans community and alienate cisgender people. "This is your platform. You need to speak your truth. You have to be vulnerable."

The V word again.

I attempted to affect and outsmart vulnerability. But, 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.

But 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 defense. No matter what the future held, I wouldn't be alone.

Then it happened: April 12, 2017, 5:48 PST.

Where we expected angry villagers wielding pitchforks, we confronted a sea of puppies and rainbows. Nick and I shook our heads in disbelief. 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.

Even weeks removed, I'm 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.

I believe it begins with having the fortune to be part of a show and a network committed to telling my story on my terms. I don't lavish praise upon Jeff Probst because his dimples make me swoon, I do so because his actions proved him to be every bit the man I believed him to be. Joe Lia, supervising producer of "The Episode," a man I'm now honored to call a friend, and the rest of the Survivor editing team crafted a tasteful, poignant moment of television (watch below), when it would've been so easy to play into exploitative sensation.

I'm also fortunate to walk in the footsteps of Chaz, Janet, Laverne, Caitlyn and so many others who cleared the path of hazards.

The story became so much bigger than anyone anticipated, and yet the reporting was top notch across the board. Though I shook with nerves backstage, the women of The Talk put me instantly at ease and were tremendously engaged in my story.  

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 apologize for not responding, but please know that your words were read and cherished.

I remain at a loss to fully explain the reaction, but I am grateful and humbled. 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.

Check back with THR for our exit interview with Zeke Smith, and let us know what you think of his latest column in the comments below.

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