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Zeke Smith on Jeff Varner's 'Survivor' "hateful tactics" -- I'm struggling to forgive him for outing me as transgender


By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 04/13/2017 

Zeke Smith says it's difficult, if not impossible, to forgive and forget Jeff Varner's slight at Tribal Council in which he revealed Zeke is transgender on the latest episode of Survivor: Game Changers.

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"It's tough with Varner. I don't think he hates trans people. I just think he has a lot of misconceptions about trans people. I think if he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go," Smith, a 29-year-old asset manager from Brooklyn, NY, told People in an interview.

On Night 18 of the game at Tribal Council, Varner said there was "deception on many levels" going on within the tribe, and then mentioned Smith's undisclosed transgender identity as an alleged example. Knowing he was the target, Varner was attempting to deflect the vote onto the tribe's biggest physical threat, Ozzy Lusth, whom Smith had been protecting for his own benefit come the merge.

"I think you see this tactic used a lot by politicians to pass these so-called bathroom bills and I don't think it's a coincidence that he's from North Carolina, where the most dangerous of these bathroom bills was passed," Smith told People.

"I think the hardest part is that if he was just some ignorant bigot, you could just write him off, but he's not. He knows better. I think because he's gay, people give his words a little more weight and I don't know if he believes what he said -- but he definitely hoped others would."

Smith appreciated, however, how his other tribemates Ozzy, Sarah LacinaAndrea Boehlke, Tai Trang and Debbie Wanner rushed to his defense and voiced their disapproval of Varner's disclosure.

"Trans people are a highly vulnerable population. We make easy targets. We're attacked a lot and I expected a lot more from Varner," Smith told People. "But I think it's so great that you see his hateful tactics rebuffed with such amazing love and from such a diverse group that responds to him."

When Varner was eliminated from Survivor: Game Changers, he and Smith hugged each other on-camera, which led viewers to believe everything was copasetic. But according to Smith, fans shouldn't read too much into that embrace.

"It was hard to see me hug him that night and tell him that it was going to be okay," Smith said, recalling how he felt when watching Wednesday night's episode back. "But it was important for me to show that he had not cowed me; that whatever shots he meant to take at me, he missed; that I was the stronger man and he was the one weeping."

Smith continued, "In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do was accept his apology and say that we'd find a way to work it out, but I don't really -- I really struggle with forgiving him every day."

Smith has apparently spent the nine months since Survivor: Game Changers was filmed trying to wrap his head around what forgiveness really means to him.

"I've had to think a lot about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened. It's not excusing what happened. I don't even think forgiveness means I have to be his friend -- and I don't think I ever will be his friend," Smith admitted.

"But I think forgiveness is about hope -- hope that he understands why what he did was wrong, hope that he doesn't ever do something like this again, and hope that whatever compelled him to give into his worst instincts in a dark moment is resolved for him. I do wish him the best, I just think I wish him the best from afar."

Smith elaborated further on his struggles to forgive Varner in a guest column he penned for The Hollywood Reporter.

"Beyond [Varner's] charm and charisma, I thought I recognized a deep-seated insecurity and self-loathing, a glimpse at who I could become were I not careful... It's one thing to lie about someone sneaking off at night to search for hidden advantages. It is quite another to incense bigotry toward a marginalized minority," Smith wrote.

Smith hopes that being open about his transgender nature now will result in a greater good and maybe help others who are in a similar position.

"I knew that Varner's actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me... His terrible utterances were not an effect of my actions, but a reflection of his own personal maladies... While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform," Smith wrote.

Varner touched upon Smith's published statements in an exclusive interview with Reality TV World on Thursday: "I understand Zeke is calling me a bigot and talking about the hate I have in my heart, and that is so wrong, and it is so unfortunate. But I respect it, and I give him every bit of space to have that reaction because what I did to him was horrible."



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