So how did Smith himself prepare for his gender identity to be exposed on national television? The 29-year-old Brooklyn-based asset manager worked closely with Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, for months leading up to the episode airing.
“What GLAAD does is we work with transgender people who either choose to be in the public eye and tell their story, or who get thrust into the public eye in a way that is not of their own choosing — that was the situation with Zeke,” Adams tells PEOPLE.
“We started talking to Zeke in November to help coach him through the consequences of being a transgender person in the public eye,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure that he felt comfortable talking about his own story — as well as realize that he would now have a public platform and should be able to talk about the issues that transgender people face.”
GLAAD also collaborated with CBS’ publicity team to ensure that Smith would be able to tell his story in the immediate aftermath of the episode, as Survivor contestants typically don’t have the opportunity to do media before they’re voted off the island.
According to Adams, before they even started working together, Smith was already “in a very good place” to take on the challenge.
“It was amazing to me, from the very first time I met him, how much work he had put into preparing for this moment,” says Adams. “He really wanted to do a good job of taking what was a horrible experience and turning it into an educational moment that could at least lead to a good dialogue about why outing someone, and why accusing transgender people of being deceptive, is such a terrible and toxic thing to do.”
“We had many, many phone calls and lunches and meetings between November and April,” he continues. “We spent a lot of time talking about what it was that he himself wanted to be able to say about this experience, and ensuring that as he told it from his point of view so that it could also connect to the larger issues that transgender people face.”
RELATED VIDEO: PEN’s Survivor Fan Forum Reacts to Zeke Being Outed as Transgender
- Watch PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.
Ultimately, Adams applauds Smith for “making the best of a bad situation.”
“This happened,” he says. “Now how can we take something that was bad that happened and turn it into a teachable moment for all the Survivor fans out there who know and love Zeke as the man he is today?”
“I think both CBS and Zeke have made it clear that they worked together,” he adds. “They took what was a negative situation and turned it into a moment that can educate millions people about what it means to be a transgender man.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.