Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Survivor: Game Changers' Controversial Tribal Council - 5 Facts You May Not Know

Last night's Survivor: Game Changers has quickly become a part of the national conversation after contestant Jeff Varner revealed that his fellow castaway Zeke Smith was transgender, a fact which he had not made public on the show before. The comment, which came during a Tribal Council in which Varner was later voted off the island, caused a strong reaction from his tribe mates, from host Jeff Probst, and from the Internet as a whole. Here are five things you should remember about last night's controversial Survivor: Game Changers tribal council.

How did the reveal come about?

For anyone who hasn't seen the show, Survivor places contestants in the wild, where they are forced to fend for themselves, finding their own food and building their own shelter. This has resulted in quite a few tense and emotional moments on the show, as people who are tired, hungry, and overheated often explode at each other in personal ways. This is all complicated by the fact that they are competing for $1 million, with strategic game play often conflated with personal ties.

The early parts of the game place contestants in two or three tribes, who compete against each other for immunity. The team that wins immunity is safe, and no one from their tribe is voted off that night. The other tribe must go to Tribal Council and vote off one of their members– which is exactly where Varner and Zeke found themselves last night.

The Tribal Council started off fairly normal. After the shocking exit last week of the show's only two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine, the Nuku tribe once again found themselves on the bottom, and Varner was certain that he would be voted out. He had tried the typical Survivor move of attempting to convince his team to vote off a physical threat (in this case, four-time player Ozzy Lusth), but it failed. He then accused Zeke and Ozzy of having a strategic alliance and deceiving the rest of the tribe, and once again suggested that people vote for Ozzy.

Varner's case appeared to be making an impact with some of his tribe mates, which might have been what led to his escalation. "There is deception here," he said. "Deception on levels that these guys don't even understand. There's more." Probst, the show's host, told him to continue before he turned to Zeke and asked, "Why haven't you told everyone you're transgender?"

The moment elicited shocked reactions from the rest of the tribe, who insisted that Zeke's deception was personal and had nothing to do with the game. (More on their reactions, and the reactions of other former contestants, later.) Varner was voted out of the game unanimously after the tense Tribal Council.

Who is Jeff Varner?

Survivor: Game Changers is Jeff Varner's third time playing Survivor. His first time playing was on the show's second season, The Australian Outback (which also featured future The View and Fox & Friends host Elisabeth Filarski-Hasselbeck), where he was the sixth person to be voted out after he dropped out of an immunity challenge for peanut butter. He didn't return to the show until 14 years later, when he was one of a number of former contestants who viewers could vote on to join Survivor: Cambodia, also known as Survivor: Second Chance. He placed 17th overall.

Outside of Survivor, Varner, who is openly gay, has previously worked as an Internet project manager for a Manhattan start-up and as an on-air entertainment reporter. According to his Twitter bio, he is currently working as a real estate broker in North Carolina.

Who is Zeke Smith?

This is Zeke's second time playing Survivor, with his first being on the previous season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X. Zeke placed ninth, making it to the jury who votes for the winner of the game. He was a key member of The Mob alliance, which stayed together for a good portion of the game but was torn apart when Will Wahl betrayed them, resulting in Zeke's elimination. He was brought back for Game Changers even though Millenials vs. Gen. X had not aired yet when Game Changers began filming.

Outside of Survivor, Zeke lives in Brooklyn and works as an asset manager. He says that he did not initially announce that he was transgender because he wanted to be known for his game, not for being the first transgender Survivor contestant.

How did current and former contestants react?

The contestants on Varner and Zeke's tribe were quick to express their anger over Varner's actions. "That has nothing to do with the game," said Andrea Boehkle, a three-time contestant who began crying shortly after the reveal. "That's personal." "Nobody has the right to out anybody," said Tai Trang, a two-time contestant. "That was for him to discuss when he felt comfortable discussing it," said Debbie Wanner, a two-time contestant. "That isn't deceiving us strategically in a game." Probst was similarly shocked and disgusted, questioning, "You're saying that by not revealing it, he's capable of deception. That's a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?" Probst would later add to Entertainment Weekly that he "cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line... You just don't do that to someone."

A number of other former contestants spoke out about the moment on Twitter, with most of them condemning Varner's decision to out Zeke. Shane Powers, a contestant from Survivor: Panama, wrote, "The game of #Survivor is intensely PERSONAL. Anyone who says it's ok to act morally horrible 'because it's a game' is wrong." While two-time contestant Erik Reichenbach specified that he still loves Varner, he did question his explanation, writing, "Was Varner's logic to say that because Zeke wasn't open about being transgender, it shows his capacity to deceive?" Two-time contestant Eliza Orlins wrote, "I think it was not [Varner's] decision to make. Not okay at all. I'm horrified."

However, some called for people to forgive Varner. Malcolm Freeberg, a three-time contestant who was voted off earlier in the season on Game Changers, wrote, "Didn't see tonight's #Survivor, but know what happened — sometimes people say unforgivable things; it's on the rest of us to forgive."

How did Varner and Zeke react?

Varner began to say he regretted his actions immediately in the moment, saying that he didn't think the reveal would go over that way. Zeke, for his part, remained calm and stoic throughout, eventually offering a lot of information on his transition and on why he decided to keep it a secret. He later expanded on his thoughts in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter, writing about how he fell in love with Survivor when he watched an episode of Cook Islands shortly after he transitioned.

"I lost many from my life when I transitioned," he wrote. "I began connecting with others in a meaningful way around the same time that my being trans stopped being a readily known fact about me. After graduating and moving to New York, no one knew me or saw me as anything other than Zeke, which was tremendously liberating— my whole life, I desired my manhood to be known without question or qualification... Many gay people consider coming out a moment of liberation, because sharing their sexual orientation with the world causes them to be seen more authentically. Often, the opposite is true for trans people. When we share our gender history, many see us less authentically— doubting, probing or denying our identities."

Zeke wrote in the essay about how he connected with Varner in the game, and how he wanted to help keep him around. However, he was unable to do so without sacrificing his position in the game, which led to the fateful Tribal Council. "In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder," Zeke wrote, adding that he has struggled to forgive Varner but he still has "hope" for him. "In proclaiming 'Zeke is not the guy you think he is' and that 'there is deception on levels y'all don't understand,' Varner is saying that I'm not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self— as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives."

Varner, for his part, released a statement on Twitter after the episode, offering his "deepest, most heart-felt apologies" to Zeke, his friends, and his family. "I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew," he said, adding that outing someone is "assault." "I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life... We cisgender Americans live with an enormous amount of privilege and should spend time pondering how we can use that for greater good. When we disrespect or discriminate, or turn blind eyes to it, we would all of us. I am deeply saddened at what my mistake unleashed and I promise to use its lessons to do the right thing."