Survivor's Zeke Smith 'Was Prepared to Be Re-Victimized' When Outed as Transgender — But Is 'Overwhelmed' by Fans' Support
"There used to be places I thought I maybe didn't belong, but I don’t believe that anymore," says Survivor contestant Zeke Smith
Smith filmed back-to-back seasons of the CBS reality show starting in October 2015. But after being voted off of Survivor: Game Changers on Wednesday, the 29-year-old — who was outed as transgender by a fellow contestant during an episode that aired in April — is ready to move on with his life.
“The era of Zeke the Survivor player is coming to an end and now I’m ready for some new adventures. I’m bummed to be out of the game, but I’m excited to see what is on the horizon,” he tells PEOPLE.
Smith played his entire first season and most of his second without ever discussing his gender history on camera. But he was thrust into the national spotlight after his tribemate Jeff Varner revealed Smith is transgender at an emotional tribal council.
“I’m still a bit overwhelmed and humbled because I never in a million years thought the response would be as positive as it was,” Smith says of how fans reacted to the news when the episode aired and his exclusive PEOPLE interview was released in April. “I worried about sensationalist headlines and photos being drudged up from my past. I was prepared to be re-victimized. But the response I received – the outpouring of love from the public – was something I never imagined happening. I was really touched.”
“I think that all started with how my tribemates responded at that tribal council,” he continues. “Their humanity really set the example. They said, ‘This is wrong and this is how you respond to it.’ I will be forever grateful for the way they and [Survivor host] Jeff Probst set the tone with how that moment should be treated.”
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But Smith admits opening up to his tribemates about being transgender did affect his standing in the competition.
“No one had a problem with me being trans. They couldn’t have cared less, but I said, ‘Let’s keep playing! Game on! Don’t hold back any punches!’ And no one did,” he says. “Within a few hours my name was being thrown around and no one was shy about telling me the reason why: I had a compelling story and people did not want to sit next to me at the end.”
“I felt that out there,” he continues. “People I had strong relationships with were not as enthusiastic about having strategic conversations with me and I felt that my time in the game was limited and winning was probably not in the cards for me.”
Even though he will not be awarded the $1 million prize at the season finale later this month, Smith says he’s gained something invaluable from his Survivor experience.
“There used to be places I thought I maybe didn’t belong, but I don’t believe that anymore,” he says. “I might want to go knock down some of those doors I thought were closed to me over the years.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.