Somebody was blindsided on Wednesday's episode of Survivor: Game Changers — and it wasn't the person who ended up going home.
In what proved to be the most intense Tribal Council ever, Jeff Varner outed his fellow castaway Zeke Smith as transgender, in a desperate play to convince his tribemates that Zeke was deceiving them and therefore move the target elsewhere.
To say the move didn't work would be an understatement, with the rest of the tribe and host Jeff Probst lashing out at Varner for his ill-advised move.
TVGuide.com had a lengthy chat with a very contrite Varner Thursday morning, during which he explained that he didn't head to Tribal with the intention of outing Zeke, and revealed that Zeke had never actually come out to him in the first place.
You seemed very flustered in your exit interview, but now that you've had some time to reflect on what happened, what would you like to say to people about what went down in last night's episode?
Varner: That's a big question. I would say that where I am and how I feel about all of this is insignificant. This is 100 percent about Zeke and his well-being and his safety and how profoundly sorry I am. I just hope and pray that he is OK and will be OK. His forgiveness last night was genuine. He has given me genuine forgiveness on the phone several times since then. I think he might be in a different place this morning, having watched it and had to experience it, and I understand that. I give him every bit of space to hate me, as well as other transgender people [to hate me]. There's lots that I'm doing in my world and lots that I've done in the last 10 months to get to a different place and move forward, but we'll talk about that in the future. I hope you'll afford me the time. Right now I just want to make sure that everybody understands that I love Zeke, I respect him, I love the show, I respect and love everybody who was there. My concern is 100 percent his well-being.
Was it your plan going in to Tribal to reveal that Zeke was trans, or was it something that you just blurted out in the moment?
Varner: Never, no. The editing makes it look like it kind of was, and I understand why it has to do that and I get that. But no, not at all.
It seemed like the realization of the implications of this kind of came to you slowly. Were you surprised by the tribe's backlash, and then did it slowly dawn on you that you had made a mistake?
Varner: Oh, my god. What you don't understand is that that Tribal Council was about two hours long, and it unfortunately had to be edited down to 20 minutes. So, dots were connected that weren't connected in reality and things were left out of the conversation that would have made things make more sense. When I was speaking about deception, I was speaking about the lying about the alliances and the locking out of the other people in the alliances, and how there was deception there. Zeke looked at me and said, "Jeff is lying. There is no deception."
And my question to him that outed him came out of emotion. It didn't come out of an intention. So, I can't say that I had any expectation of how anyone would react. I didn't know that I would say that myself in that moment. I thought, how do you come onto a reality show like Survivor with a secret like that, and nobody know it? It didn't dawn in my head at all that Zeke was not out. I thought he was out and proud to the viewers, to his family, to his friends, to everybody, and he was just lying to us. So, as I'm defending myself in that moment, I'm not defending my actions. I'm just trying to explain that, "He's out. Everybody knows it. What did I do? I don't understand what I did wrong. He's proud. He'll tell you himself." And then when it dawns on me that that's not the case, it was devastating. It was a horrible moment. I had a total emotional breakdown right there that you don't see on the show, and it lasted for months. It took me months to get to a place where I could actually start worrying and thinking about my own emotional health, because my focus has always been 100 percent towards Zeke, and it is today.
At what point during the two hours did this happen?
Varner: It was about halfway through.
You're from North Carolina, where trans rights are a big topic right now, and you mentioned your own activism.
Varner: With the work that I've done in North Carolina — I am on the board of directors for the Adam Foundation, which is an LGBT organization here in Greensboro, North Carolina. All of that started to sink in. And I've had to deal with all of that. My message has to be that we stop separating and dividing. We have to stop minimalizing and discriminating against trans people. We have to acknowledge their humanity, their dignity. We have to lift up their voices. We can't reduce them to body parts because it objectifies them and dehumanizes them. What's happening in North Carolina and other states, it's not about bathrooms. These people — and I'm going to call them bigots — are arguing about whether or not trans people have the right to exist in public. Their effort is, I believe, to erase trans people from society, and it's horrible. California passed several years ago public protections to protect the rights of these people, and there's absolutely no incident from that. Nothing has happened. What has happened as a result of that is trans people feel included, they feel respected by their leaders, they feel free to live authentically. Not even just that, but to thrive. And that's all they want.
I'm sure it is frustrating for a trans person that I'm the one out here talking about it. We need trans voices out here speaking on behalf of themselves, but if there's anything that I can do today, it's to send the message that outing someone is just a horrible thing. It marginalizes people. It stigmatizes them. It shames them. It pushes them back into the closet. It forces them not to be their authentic selves. Which is the opposite of what they want and it's the opposite of what we need. Outing somebody is assault, and nobody should ever, ever do what I did. And I have immense regret and remorse and I will live with that the rest of my life.
If there's any silver lining from last night's episode, I think it would be Sarah's comments — which I doubt you fully heard in the moment.
Varner: It's beautiful. Sarah seemed to be the most angry with me in that Tribal, and ironically, out of all the people who were in that Tribal, Sarah's the one who reached out to me. Sarah's the one who I've heard the most from. Sarah called me last night to thank me, because she had to sit her very conservative family down and say, "Here's what you're gonna see tonight, and here's why." She said it launched a conversation in her household that changed everyone's perception. And I'm just hoping that that's happening across the country today, because that's where we need to go. That's what we need. And I appreciate CBS for putting this out there so that conversation can be had.
Have you been dreading this episode airing? Did you call any friends or family members to warn them?
Varner: I have a lot of trans friends. That's the irony of the whole situation, is I have trans friends. I have made certain to reach out and talk to them and be with them, and we've experienced every emotion together as a family, friend group. I lived with a lot of shame for so long and I'm so grateful for researchers and authors like Brené Brown, who has taught me that shame is, "I am a bad person." But guilt is, "I did a bad thing. And I've worked really hard to transition that shame to guilt so I could actually deal with this. Speaking to Zeke on the phone has helped the healing, but having it air last night and having the ability to talk about it today is continuing that healing. And I just hope people understand that I'm not a bigot. I have zero hate in my heart, and I will spend the rest of my life proving that to people, and I look forward to that.
Are you concerned about backlash now that the episode's aired?
Varner: I've intentionally stayed off social media. I have friends of mine who are watching the social media for me. A lot of the backlash is out there, but they're putting in front of me so much of the support. There's so much support out there, not only for me but for both of us, and I'm focusing on that. I have to keep in mind how long it took me to get past the hatefulness of what happened, and the perception of hatefulness at what happened. There was no hate in my heart. I just have to respect everyone's reaction. Everyone has the right, even Zeke. He has the right. His friends harassed me all night long. I got horrible emails and text messages from all of them, and I appreciate that. I respect it. I deserve it. I offered, when I talked to Zeke the last time, to come to New York, where he lives. "Let's put a chair in the middle of the room and let them all hit me. I deserve it. I'm here." And we're never going to get past this into the next point until we work past it. And I know we'll get there, but the backlash is what the backlash is, and it will be what it's going to be. And I hope — I know that we all will be able to come to a point where this will be probably one of the greatest things that's ever happened in our lives. I'm looking at it like that.
So what happened immediately after Tribal?
Varner: I walked out of that game and fell into the arms of Dr. Liza Siegel, who is our show psychologist. And she removed me from the process of where I needed to go and what I needed to do, and just spent probably five days with me, just talking. ... I had suicidal thoughts after it was over with, and there was some work that we did together to get me out of that place. And the pre-jury members, when we all went on our trip — Tony and Ciera and Sandra and Malcolm and Caleb — just were absolutely wonderful to me. I was in the arms of advocates and friends. It was so difficult in the days after. It was not an easy situation. It is not, to this day, an easy situation.
And you said you and Zeke have spoken since, and you think he's forgiven you?
Varner: That's been my experience with Zeke on the telephone. Now, some of these interviews, something's going on this morning. He's speaking with a different tune. He's talking about the hate in my heart and the bigotry and all this. Zeke doesn't know me. That's not who I am, and I'm confident that's not who I am. The people who love me know that's not who I am. And I give him every space to do that. I respect that. Zeke is young, and I can only imagine what he's dealing with today. He will come to a good place eventually, I'm sure. But you'll have to speak to him to find out where he is today, because I don't know. My last conversation with Zeke was immensely positive.
When Zeke came out to you, did he mention that this was something he had kept a secret from the others?
Varner: He did not come out to me. He didn't come out to me. I put two and two and three and four together and when I asked him in Tribal, "Why haven't you told people?" I was not 100 percent sure he was [trans]. So that was a thoughtless, emotional moment for me that should not have happened.
We're almost out of time and I know we haven't really discussed anything else that happened this season...
Varner: There's no reason to. Everything else that happened this season seemed so trivial. When I told Jeff [Probst], "I'm ready to go," it wasn't because I was giving up. I didn't quit. It was just no longer about the game anymore. I realized, this is not about the game. This is about life. And I became devastated and all of that. It's not about the game anymore, and I thank them for the opportunity to be on that island in Fiji, but I don't care anything about what happened any moment before what you saw last night.
Would you play Survivor again if they asked you back?
Varner: Not anytime soon, no.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS.
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