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It’s been more than a year since Zeke Smith was shockingly outed as transgender during an episode of CBS’ reality hit Survivor. In the year since, Smith has worked with watchdog group GLAAD to become an activist for the LGBTQ community. As Survivor is nominated for a GLAAD Award for outstanding reality program at the May 4 GLAAD Media Awards, Smith reflects on his journey and how something great came from a personal betrayal.
A little over a year ago, I was outed as transgender by a fellow contestant on CBS’ Survivor. My outing made big headlines, which was the last thing I wanted when I trekked to Fiji. But now, I’m really glad it did.
Before we left Fiji, host Jeff Probst and I committed ourselves to not allowing what happened to be remembered as tragedy, nor I as victim. I looked Probst in the eye, shook his hand, and made him this promise without having the slightest idea as to how the task might be accomplished.
Upon returning home, I Googled, “trans outing.” The search results were all stories of trans people who had been outed and killed or committed suicide. Such bleak scenes are rather familiar for trans people. Our headlines tend toward the dark — another discriminatory bill introduced into a state legislature, another trans woman killed. A young trans person reading the news might come to believe restriction and violence were their inevitable fate.
My deepest fear became that some young trans person might look at my Survivor turn as reason not to attack the world with joyfully reckless abandon. S, I resolved that I would change the search result. I would write a new narrative. My story would be a trans story with a happy ending. But, in order to tell this story, I would need to do that thing I feared so greatly — to be a trans person in the media, who held that position not just with comfort, but enthusiasm.
I spent months refining my messaging and learning how to speak to the press. Probst assured me that I had the full force of the Survivor team behind me, and when the day came for my outing to air, I stood with the confidence I hoped I would. There was a blur of essays and outrage and interviews and sleepless nights and red carpets and an extensive credit card bill for all the Hawaiian shirts I stress shopped.
When the dust settled, I Googled, “trans outing.” I found the story of a trans person who, in the midst of going after his dream, was outed and immediately heard the vociferous defense of his peers, witnessed the seamless execution of justice, felt the unwavering support of those in positions of power, was embraced by the American people and realized that the only limits in his life were those he imposed upon himself.
We changed the search result.
I hoped that’s where my experience with “role modeling” would end. After the live finale, I ran down the streets of North Hollywood yelling, “I’m free!” That was the first night I held the sobbing parent of a transgender boy in my arms.
During the past year, I’ve traveled extensively and met thousands of Survivor fans. I’ve become an expert at taking selfies; dodged make-out attempts from drunk ladies at Graceland and welcomed the advances of gentlemen in gay bars across America. But my favorite Survivor fan interactions are those in my homeland of Oklahoma, where at 18 I was chased out with torches and pitchforks. Now I return as a bit of a favorite son. I take pictures with children in Bible school t-shirts.
I have not had a single negative encounter. Sometimes fans remember the incident. Sometimes they don’t. Heck, sometimes they don’t even remember my name. To them, I am the guy from Survivor, to whom they can ask their most burning question about their favorite show: What’s the deal with pooping?
Then there are the other people I meet, trans middle- and high-schoolers and their parents, who, whether they know me from Survivor, know me as a happy trans adult. They reach out over email and Instagram. I run into them in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles, in Austin, Texas, and Norman, Oklahoma. I see the way these boys keep their eyes downcast toward their sneakers. I’m one of the few people in the world who knows what they’re going through.
See, I thought my responsibility to be publicly trans would end with the conclusion of Survivor. It was Probst of all people who spelled it out for me — that I now would be looked to as the expert, regardless of my desire to be so. And no one is more surprised than me that I’ve come to delight in this responsibility.
When I transitioned, everyone around me acted like the world ended, that I should be grateful for whatever crumbs might fall my way. I wasted so many years believing them. Now, I want to reframe in these boys’ minds what it is to be trans. I don’t want them to think of being trans as an identity. I want them to think of it as an adventure.
Transitioning is a massive obstacle that they are confronting at a very young age. They’re going to stumble and, at times, it will be messy. But if I can give them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, then just maybe they’ll get through it with their heads held high. Then they will have this experience to rely upon when they face challenges in the future. Should these boys look out in the world today and not see a place for themselves, should they resent the headlines, should they desire a new ending to the story, I hope that they themselves will resolve to change the search result.
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