Jeff Varner won’t make excuses: Outing fellow Survivor contestant Zeke Smith as transgender was a heinous attack.
“Nobody should ever do that,” Varner, 50, tells Us Weekly. “You can’t out people. Because then you marginalize them, you shame them, you stigmatize them, you force them back in the closet. You don’t allow them to fit in and that’s a horrible place. I firmly believe outing is assault. It robs them of their safety and their protection. I’m devastated I’m the one who did that.”
Though the episode, in which Varner revealed Smith’s secret in an attempt to save himself from elimination, aired on Wednesday, April 12, the actual scene was shot nearly a year ago. (Watch the controversial moment in the video above.) “It’s been a terrible 10 months,” admits the three-time Survivor player, who revealed he’s been seeking counseling since filming ended. “Part of me is relieved because healing could not begin until it aired.”
During an emotional phone call, a shaken Varner spoke with Us about “the worst decision of my life.”
Us Weekly: When and how did Zeke tell you he’s transgender? Viewers never saw it happened.
Jeff Varner: He didn’t. Not directly. Indirectly, there were several things, but he never told me. I wasn’t 100 percent sure when I said that at tribal. You know, I really don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about how I knew out of respect for Zeke. I want to say off the top that there’s absolutely no excuse. I’m not going to make an excuse. I’m not going to defend myself. What I did was horrible. There’s so much that people don’t know about what happened. Tribal council went on for two hours. They edited it down to 20 minutes. Had they been able to show the full two hours there would be fewer questions. A lot was explained. I can only say today that how I am and my well-being is insignificant. I don’t want to talk about that. Today is about Zeke and what happened to him. He’s a tremendous, courageous human being just like other trans people. I hurt him. I hurt them. I know that. We say and do the wrong things when we’re in pain and in fear and desperate. I just make zero excuses for what happened.
Us: Have you spoken to Zeke outside of the game?
JV: I have spoken to Zeke several times and forgiveness keeps coming out of him. I’m amazed and just stunned at his forgiveness. He’s an amazing human being. We’re both on separate journeys to accept what happened and move forward. Those journeys don’t intersect. He reached out to me and the conversations we’ve had have allowed me to heal. He’s calling me some rough stuff out there today and I get it. I give him every bit of room to come after me and I respect him for it. I deserve everything he’s doing. My focus is on Zeke and his health and his well-being and what I can do to help him.
Us: What’s your relationship like with the rest of your tribe? They all defended Zeke last night.
JV: They also all defended me, which was edited out of the show. I had hugs and forgiveness and wonderful things from everybody. My cast has been immensely supportive of me. They’re in both of our corners. It’s just a difficult situation. You saw on the show last night Sarah [Lacina] was particularly angry at me. Ironically, Sarah is the one I’ve been on the phone with the most. She supports me the most. The people who matter on that show are in my life. I’m grateful for them. It’s difficult for them. They love and support us both.
Us: Do you think the edited-down version of tribal council was an accurate depiction of what happened?
JV: I think it was a high level of accurate. It went on for two hours so there’s so much more there that I really wish the viewer could have seen. It would have less stigmatized trans people. It would have shown we all make mistakes. It would have shown compassion for me and everyone else. Jeff Probst said in tribal that night that he’s known me for 20 years and I don’t have a hateful bone in my body. I wish that had made the editing. I wish he would say that publicly because he’s telling me that privately. As is [executive producer] Mark Burnett. I have no animosity toward the show or the editors. The show has been absolutely wonderful to me. They’ve helped Zeke and I in the last 10 months through therapists and counseling.
Us: Have you ever been in situation similar to Zeke where somebody shared a secret that wasn’t theirs to share? Do you understand that pain?
JV: I understand not only the pain that he’s going through but that I’m the one who caused it. It’s so hard to live with. I’m sorry I’m getting emotional. It’s an emotional day for me. I hope if anything can come from this it’s that people can know you can’t do that to people. We live in such an ugly world today. We separate and we divide and we minimize and discriminate on so many different levels. It’s horrible. When it comes to trans people, we have to acknowledge their humanity and their dignity and listen to their voices and celebrate their courage. So much of the legislation that’s happening across the world right now is not about bathrooms. It’s about whether or not trans people have the right to exist in public and that’s horrible. So many of our leaders are making an effort to erase trans people from our society and that angers me so much. I want to do everything in my power to stop that. Today, my focus is on Zeke and his safety and his happiness. His friends have harassed me all night long online. I understand they’re hurting. It’s painful. I give them all respect and room to do that. I love Zeke and think everything of the world about him. I do believe he’s coming to a positive place with it and I know that I eventually will. I hope that we can work together in the future so that we can do some great stuff. I’m glad Survivor put this conversation into the universe because it needs to be had. I look forward to where this is going in the future because good stuff will come from this and I will be part of that.
Us: Your tribe’s reaction last night was really powerful. They defended Zeke and didn’t blink at the fact that he was transgender. Especially Sarah who comes from a conservative background. What do you think that says about our culture?
JV: I hope that this helps us move forward even more. So many people don’t have trans people in their lives. They don’t have that experience to know that they’re just normal people who not only want to exist but want to rise. We should all do everything we can to help them. I’m so happy to see Sarah’s growth. I talked to her yesterday and her family, who otherwise would not have allowed Zeke into their world, now are embracing him. People should step back and realize we’re all humans. We all have our own individual obstacles. Who in the hell are we to throw obstacles in other people’s paths to make their lives harder? It’s a horrible commentary on who we are as humans and I hope this can be the beginning of changing that.
Us: What do you have to say to the people tweeting at you saying what you said was transphobic, cruel and invasive?
JV: They’re right. They’re absolutely right. Part of what my counseling and all of my work in the last 10 months has helped me realize is that we as a society have created rules and laws and systems that not only are transphobic and homophobic but they’re also racist and they’re sexist. Because we’re all brought up in the middle of that, whether we want to admit it or not, we’re all on some level racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic. It makes it difficult for other people when we turn a blind eye to it. We don’t agree with the laws that are going, but we don’t vote against them. We don’t like what our leaders are doing, but we don’t pick up the phone and call them. We don’t stand up and protest. We absolutely need more of that. I respect and honor every comment I’m getting online. I see their pain and I welcome it. I can’t say anything other then I’m profoundly sorry. Not only to Zeke and his family but to the world and everyone I’ve hurt today.
Survivor airs on CBS Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET.