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Survivor: Jeff Varner says 'I am absolutely devastated' over outing Zeke as transgender

Varner gets emotional while apologizing to Zeke and discusses the emotional toll it has taken on him

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Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Tribal Council on Survivor is a setting that has been home to some of the craziest twists imaginable, but the most shocking thing to ever happen there may have taken place on this week’s episode, and it had nothing to do with strategy. Jeff Varner detonated a bomb of bad taste when he outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender, and then insinuated that Zeke’s reluctance to share that information himself made him deceitful.

Varner’s desperate gambit was met with an immediate and harsh reaction from his tribemates, a rebuke from host Jeff Probst, and disappointment from his intended target. By the end of the night, Varner appeared to realize the error of his ways, apologies coming out of his mouth, tears coming out of his eyes, and his head buried in his hands. But that was 10 months ago.

What was it like for Varner to have to relive the experience all over again when it aired on television, knowing he was now outing Zeke to the entire country? We asked the contestant that and more when he called into EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) and you can hear his responses below on the EW Morning Live Podcast. Here is the bulk of our chat.

On what the past 10 months have been like for him after this happened:
“I will say that I have spent 10 months stewing in this awful, horrible mistake I made. I have been through I don’t now how much therapy with the show’s therapist, with a local therapist, I have met with and spoken to several LGBT organizations, I have joined the board of a couple of them, I joined a national study on outness. This has changed me drastically. But I don’t want to spend two minutes talking about my experience because this isn’t about me. This is about Zeke. And I can only profusely apologize. “

On his communication with Zeke since then:
“I have apologized to him. We’ve spoken several times on the phone. He continually forgives me. I’m amazed and moved by his ability to do that. I know that forgiveness is difficult. I know he has a lot of people in his ear. I know that watching this last night was traumatic, not only for me and my family. I can only imagine what it was like for him and his friends. I hurt him. When we are in pain and in fear we are dangerous people. We say things we don’t mean. And he’s calling me a bigot and full of hate and all kinds of stuff and I forgive him for that. I give him every inch of every room to feel and experience what he’s feeling. If he wants to take swings at me, I’m the one to hand him the bat. I deserve it. I deserve every bit of it. Nobody’s going to beat me up worse than myself.”

On calling Zeke deceptive for not telling people he was transgender:
“I’m stuck mostly that the theme of a lot of that was deception, because in that game — you know more than anybody — we’re all deceiving everybody. And we all have our back up to the deception that’s in our face. And when I was talking about deception, I was talking about the game. I was not talking about trans people deceiving people. And that’s horrible. That’s a stigma they face and it’s not accurate and it’s not true and I’m just devastated that I am an example of what’s bad. And I just hope that people can understand that they should never do what I did. Outing somebody is assault. I truly believe that. It robs them of their personal power and their freedom and it sets them up for discrimination and for danger and for crime. And that’s just been so impossible to live with.

“For months my focus was Zeke and was about Zeke. It didn’t dawn on me until long after the fact that I’ve screwed my own life here. I don’t care. It’s about Zeke and I’m absolutely devastated and cannot apologize enough. I don’t know what else to do. I just have to get through this period. I’m sure it’s frustrating for the transgender community to have me out here speaking because it’s awful. We need to stop separating and dividing as a community. We have to stop minimalizing and discriminating against trans people. We have to acknowledge their humanity and their dignity and lift up their voices. Never reduce them to deception and body parts that objectives them and dehumanizes them. And that’s not who I am. None of what you saw from me last night is who I am.”

On when the gravity of what he had done hit him:
“Oh, it was there. And that Tribal Council is two hours long. It went forever. They had to edit it down to 20 minutes. There is so much you didn’t see that went on forever. We talked about all of it. When it hit me, I had an emotional breakdown. You see a few tears from me, but in reality that went on for hours. And I couldn’t speak about this for weeks and months without breaking down. I’m on the verge of it today. It’s just horrible.”

On what it was he was hoping would happen by bringing it up at all at Tribal Council:
“There was no hope. It’s unfortunate that you can’t see the entire Tribal. I wish there is some way they could put that as a secret scene or something because I was illustrating the deception that Ozzy and Zeke — and Andrea was in part of that — that they were illustrating. When I was talking deception, that was 100 percent what I was talking about. There was no hope. There was no hope of anything. I didn’t go into that Tribal with that as a target — with that as a plan to do. When I was talking about the deception of the secret alliance and trying to sway everybody else, there was a moment where Zeke looked at me — this was edited out of the show — but he looked at me and said ‘There is no deception. I’m not deceiving anybody.’ And when he said that, my question just came out of my mouth to him. Let me just clarify: I make zero excuses. There are no excuses for what I did. I’m not looking to garner any sympathy from anybody. This is not about me. This is about Zeke. And I’m devastated that this is what happened and this is where we are. “

On if this pain is ever going to go away:
Never. Never. Ever.

On if he had told producers before Tribal and let them know he was thinking of doing it:
“No. Never. In fact, I said the opposite. Zeke had shot Millennials vs. Gen X. It hadn’t aired yet, so when we went to Fiji I didn’t know who he was. And my immediate thought was, who are you? What did you do to get here? There is something in your game that made you worthy of being here, and who are you? And it heightened my investigation into him. In pre-game, I studied Zeke. I watched his every move. I kept thinking, Russell Hantz. When Russell Hantz played Survivor: Samoa, Russell Hantz was a horrible human being. And the viewers knew that he was a horrible human [but] the players who showed up for Heroes vs. Villains didn’t know who he was.

“Sandra told me that Russell carried a bible with him around during pre-game, and did everything to deceive everybody on who he was, and I felt like I had my finger on the new Russell Hantz. And in the game, he was making moves and doing things. If I had a conversation in the woods with somebody about strategy, Zeke popped up. No matter who it was, there he was. And it was clear to me that Zeke was playing all sides. I just saw him as the new Russell Hantz. And he said all kinds of things that confirmed that for me.

“You see us partnering. You see me calling him my partner. You see us buddying. But I knew that he was lying to me, and not about his gender identity. I’m talking about his gameplay. I just felt like there’s no way a trans man is coming on Survivor and nobody knows who he is. In my mind, Zeke was out, he was loud, he was proud. All of the viewers of Millennials vs. Gen X knew who he was. He was the new Russell Hantz and I misjudged that — totally. So when I was saying, ‘You guys don’t know what’s going on here,’ I was talking to the six in front of us because I knew that the producers knew about Zeke, I knew the audience knew about Zeke, I thought CBS has been promoting Zeke as the first transgender contestant and I was so excited that he was there, that it took me a minute to realize, what did I do wrong? I’m revealing the new Russell Hantz to you guys! Wake up and see what’s here.

“And then it dawns on me that I am so wrong. That nobody knew it. And I cowered. There is an entire emotional breakdown of me when I realized what I had done. And I’ll never forget that. I’ll never get past that. And I’m doing everything in my power to use what that is doing to me and to us to do good. I’m absolutely devastated. It’s a horrible thing. [crying]”

On if he is done with Survivor after this experience:
“This show has been part of my life for so long. I’ll never be done with it. Once you’re a Survivor, you’re always a Survivor. This is my family. And Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst and casting and everybody — they’re not saying it publicly, and I understand why they’re not. But I’ve heard from all of them and they have nothing but love and support for me. And I’m grateful for that. This is my family, and they’ve got two kids who are in the middle of this and they’ve got to choose one over the other and they’re doing their best as best they can to support us both. And I’m just grateful for them. I’m grateful for CBS. I’m grateful for production. I’m grateful for everybody who has helped me and helped Zeke through this situation.

“And if I can deliver any message to anybody it’s that we should never out or marginalize a trans person. It stigmatizes them. It shames them, It pushes them back into the shadows which is the opposite of what we need. We are forcing them as a society to not be their themselves. All these bathroom bills are not about bathrooms. They are about whether these trans people have the right to exist in public. So many leaders and people are trying to erase trans people from society and I want to play a role in some way to stop that.”

Listen to the entire interview above, right after our chats with The Fate of the Furious’ Jason Statham and Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean. Or subscribe on iTunes to listen on the go. Also make sure to check out our Survivor episode Q&A with Jeff Probst as well as Dalton’s full recap, and for more EW Morning Live podcast news, follow us on Twitter @EWMLPodcast.