Fans were stunned when contestant Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by Jeff Varner on last week’s episode of Survivor — and the shock waves from that emotional reveal continue to play out on Wednesday’s episode.
Picking up just after Varner was unceremoniously voted out of the game, Wednesday’s episode began with Smith and his tribemates back at camp.
“He took away so much from Zeke. Thinking about it right now, I’m a little bit emotional about it,” Tai said.
“I come from a very conservative background. I don’t know any transgender people until now. And the fact that I’ve been with Zeke and gotten to know him as a person from day one, I love that guy. And it doesn’t change who he is to me. If anything, it makes us stronger, I feel. I woke up this morning, and Zeke is Zeke,” said Sarah Lacina, who, along with her fellow tribemates, came to Smith’s defense last week when Varner attempted to paint Smith as “deceptive” because he had remained quiet about his gender history.
“I didn’t want people to cry and yell,” Zeke told his tribemates. “I was very touched by how everyone responded.”
“One of the reasons I didn’t tell people is I sort of wanted people to see me as myself. Often in my life when I tell people I’m trans, it’s sort of what they’re interested in. And everything else about me sort of gets pushed to the wayside,” said Zeke.
“Survivor, it makes you tough, it makes you resilient, and it makes you adaptable,” Smith, 29, said in a confessional. “I think I had all those qualities before, but they’ve certainly been strengthened and grown. And I think I was able to be a little more brave, and a little bolder, to help others, and also to get over my own fears and to get over my own issues and complexes and insecurities of being transgender.”
“It is heartening in this game … that people who are out to get you in some regard do come to your defense,” Smith continued. “But in the meantime, there’s still a task at hand. A task that I’m rather committed to. I’m here to win a million dollars. I’m here to play Survivor. So let’s just get back to it.”
Later during the special two-hour episode, Smith’s tribe merged with the competing tribe as the game for $1 million switches to individual challenges with all the remaining contestants living on the same beach.
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Rather than keep the fact that he’s transgender just among his former tribemates, Smith — who spoke to PEOPLE exclusively about his public outing last week — opened up to the entire group.
“I’ll tell the Varner story. Here’s the thing. We get to Tribal Council and we’re not five minutes in before Varner takes it upon himself to say, ‘Zeke is deceiving you because what Zeke is not telling you is that Zeke is transgender,’ which, it is true. I am,” Smith told the larger group. “Though it happened in a way that I wasn’t crazy about, I think I’m like all of you and forever changed and forever evolved by my experience on Survivor — and was a much stronger and more capable person in that moment.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS. To get Survivor contestant — and PEOPLE Now host — Andrea Boehlke’s take, tune in to her PEN Fan Forum: Survivor show immediately after the reality show airs.