When Zeke Smith was cast on Survivor in 2016, the Brooklyn-based asset manager didn’t necessarily plan on sharing that he was transgender.
“I didn’t want to be the ‘first transgender Survivor contestant,’ ” Smith says in the current issue of PEOPLE.
The 29-year-old debuted on season 33 of the CBS show last fall and returned for the all-star season 34 in March.
“I’m not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story,” he says. “I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game.”
Smith was raised in Oklahoma and transitioned while studying religion at Harvard.
“My confidence was obliterated, and I was afraid to dream,” Smith says of being depressed during and after his transition. “I realized I needed to take on a big challenge to become the man I wanted to be. For some reason, that was Survivor.”
Though Smith was open about who he was during his Survivor audition, he just didn’t want to discuss it during filming.
“When you tell people you’re trans, you get two reactions: Either they look at you funny and pull back, or they go, ‘Aww, that must be so hard.’ I’m a goofy, fun-loving guy, so neither of those reactions work well for me,” he says.
So Smith was “shell-shocked” when his competitor Jeff Varner outed him in an attempt to paint him as “deceitful” in the episode airing Wednesday night.
“I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent. That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me because it’s the same one used to discriminate against, attack and murder trans people,” Smith says. “What’s great is that nobody bought it.”
Smith praises his cast mates for rebuking the fear tactic and standing by him.
“It’s important people see he lost that fight,” says Smith. “The message should be clear that hate will always lose.”
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.