Jeff Varner wishes he could take back that tribal council. As viewers saw during the Wednesday, April 12, episode of Survivor: Game Changers, Varner outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender in an attempt to save himself from elimination. The move backfired, as the other tribe members and host Jeff Probst — along with fans watching from home — reacted to his actions with outrage and disbelief.
After the episode aired on Wednesday, Varner took to Twitter to apologize to Smith for what he did. “Yep. I did that. And I offer my deepest, most heartfelt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended,” he began.
“I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew,” he continued. “I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life.”
He went on to acknowledge the magnitude of his mistake. “Let me be clear, outing someone is assault. It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger,” he wrote. “It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime. I am profoundly sorry. Zeke is a wonderful man and I will forever be amazed and inspired by his forgiveness and compassion.”
He also said that he hopes people learn from his mistake. “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,” he shared. “I am deeply saddened at what my mistake unleashed and I promise to use its lessons to do the right thing.”
Smith, for his part, reflected on the incident in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter. “When he said what he said, he changed both of our lives forever,” the two-time contestant wrote. “When he pulled me in for a hug, I felt compelled to reciprocate, both as a sign that I was willing to forgive him and that the shots he had fired missed.”
He admitted, though, that he has since “struggled with that forgiveness. … 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. But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. … I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.”