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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Survivor's Zeke Smith reflects on being outed as transgender—and what should have been different

Zeke Smith on Survivor
Zeke Smith on Survivor
Screenshot: Survivor (CBS

In an an emotional 90-minute conversation Wednesday, five Survivor alums gathered virtually to discuss what it is like to be an LGBTQ minority on the CBS reality competition series. “If you walk in your own truth, you won’t mind how I walk in mine,” Survivor: Island of the Idols’s Missy Byrd said about feeling like an “other” both among the cast and behind the scenes. Byrd was joined on the panel—which was organized by the Soul Survivor Organization and hosted by Rob Has A Podcast in partnership with The A.V. Club.—by her season 39 castmate Vince Moua, Brice Izyah (Survivor: Cagayan, season 28), Zeke Smith (Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, season 33 and Survivor: Game Changers, season 34), Lyrsa Torres (Survivor: David vs. Goliath, season 37). “We’re doing this so a little kid who looks like me doesn’t feel like they’re the only one,” Izyah said of calling for more diversity both in front of and behind the camera. “I want them to have a better experience.”

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Survivor’s Lyrsa Torres, Vincent Moua, Brize Izyah, Missy Bird, and Zeke Smith.
Survivor’s Lyrsa Torres, Vincent Moua, Brize Izyah, Missy Bird, and Zeke Smith.
Graphic: TrickyRice

Though he is a minority as a transgender person, Zeke Smith spoke at length on Wednesday about how his privilege as a white man played a role in how his story was told when he was outed by another contestant during his second stint on the show:

I both played the game and was treated afterwards with an abundance of white-male privilege.... I think that because the show was unequivocally made through a white male lens.... I mean, [CBS] is not a network that, I think, can have a critical look at at stories outside of what they think is going to make a Midwestern mom comfortable. And I think that’s the lens through which Jeff [Probst, host and executive producer,] makes the show. I remember in our conversations trying to make sense of what was about to happen to me. He was saying, ‘You know, it’s going to be okay. I’ve shown my mom the episode, and my mom is my barometer of how the rest of the world will react. And she likes you.” And nothing against Jeff’s mom, she’s a wonderful lady...but I do think that shows how limited [the show] is.

I wonder if my story would have had the same impact that it had in opening people’s minds to transgender people if I were a Black trans woman... I think that not being visibly trans provided me a lot of cover in my first season. I think that if I was not white, if I was more femme presenting, if it was known that I was trans, I think I would have been the first person voted out at the Millennials tribe.

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Smith also shared how his experience was different than the one season 39's Kellee Kim had after calling out fellow contestant Dan Spilo for inappropriately touching women on set.

I had a really great relationship with the show [after my season.] I was very tight with a lot of the producers. We would go to football games and do Spartan races and like go out to drinks and dinner. I had a very close relationship with the show, but then when Kellee came home from Survivor, she was a Harvard classmate of mine, and she told me about what happened, and I sort of helped guide her through the process. And what was so glaring is that I was treated so much better than she was. I was given access to a year’s worth of therapy that they paid a lot of money for. I was given access to what my narrative was going to be. I had a phone number of people that I could call whenever I got stressed out. I had legions and legions of support, like up to and including Jeff himself. I had guarantees leaving Fiji. Like I had conversations with Jeff before I left Fiji about how things were going to go down. And, you know, Kellee got none of that. Kellee didn’t get the mental health care, and Kellee didn’t get the access. Kellee didn’t get the support from external organizations. I think the reason why I got that is because Jeff could see himself in me. And with Kellee, I spoke out for Kellee. I was critical of how the show handled Kellee situation. And I’ve not heard a peep from anybody [from the show] since. There’s definitely been consequences for me and my status with the show for speaking out. And I think that’s how the show controls us. If you are critical of the show, you’re going to get taken off the returner list. I don’t want to go back, so I don’t care. I’m happy to stand on my principles.

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“I think that I’ve already spoken about how there needs to be more diversity on the other side of the camera, because if you have people with the same perspective, they can’t see the possibilities for new stories,” Smith says of how to avoid “unconscious bias” impacting how LGBTQ and other minorities’ stories are told on Survivor. His suggestion is one of the action items already featured on an online petition the org has been championing on moveon.org that lists anti-racism and inclusion demands of Survivor executive producers Jeff Probst, Matt Van Wagenen, and Mark Burnett; ViacomCBS; and the production companies behind the series. (After season 39, CBS and the Survivor production team instituted mandatory anti-harassment and reporting policies and trainings for all crew and cast, which include unconscious bias and sensitivity training. On Monday, CBS announced the network “will allocate a minimum of 25 percent of its future script development budgets to projects created or co-created by BIPOC.” And today, CBS Television Studios and the NAACP announced a multi-year partnership to develop and produce scripted, unscripted and documentary content for linear television networks and streaming platforms.)

“Lower our threat level,” Missy Byrd said of why a more diverse tribe is important. “If there’s only one [black or gay] person on a tribe...something does not look like the other things. We’re going to get voted out because we don’t fit in. We’re not the same. The way we act is different the way we speak is different, the way we want to join into conversations—all of that is different. If you cast more of us, the threat level will be lowered. If you see me in the final six—as a 5'11", outspoken, blut, Black woman, who is also gay—you are going to vote me out. You should, because I am strategic and I deserve to win, but you’re going to vote me for all these things that I am. I don’t want to leave the game because of how I was born. I was born this way, and I’m here to play. If you cast more of us, my threat level would be lower. Give me a shot, give Brice a shot, give Lyrsa, give Zeke, Vince—give all of us a shot to win the game.... Have more of us out there.”

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Looking for ways to advocate for Black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved. If you want to support LGBTQ youth, consider donating to GLSEN, which promotes anti-bullying initiatives and gay-straight alliances in schools nationwide, and The Trevor Project, which operates a confidential hotline staffed by trained counselors who provide crisis-intervention and suicide-prevention services.

A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.

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