When Zeke Smith was cast on Survivor US 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 year 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”.
“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.”
Viewers watching the episode as it aired in the US took to social media to air their outrage.
One viewer called it the "worst thing" to ever happen during the 34 seasons of the show.
A version of this article originally appeared on PEOPLE.com