Suvivor fans were shocked and appalled after contestant Jeff Varner outed his tribemate Zeke Smith as transgender in an attempt to paint him as “deceitful” on Wednesday’s episode of the CBS reality competition.
“Trans people are a highly vulnerable population. We make easy targets. We’re attacked a lot and I expected a lot more from Varner,” Smith, 29, has told PEOPLE exclusively. “But I think it’s so great that you see his hateful tactics rebuffed with such amazing love and from such a diverse group that responds to him.”
Now, through tears, Varner, 50, speaks to PEOPLE about the events leading up to the outing, the “shame” he’s been coping with since the event and what good he hopes will come from the “horrible” situation.
What were you feeling after watching your actions on TV last night?
It’s hard to have lived through that 2-hour tribal and have it condensed to 20 minutes and see how moments were cut out and connected. I think the editing was good. I think they did a good job with what they had to work with, but it’s just very difficult.
I thought of his family and his friends watching that moment – I’m sad. I’m really angry at myself and I’m profusely sorry to everybody I offended, to Zeke, all the people out there who are hurting because of me. It was not my intention. It was never my intention. [Sobbing] My god, I’m crying. I’ve been crying all day and that’s not something I want to do.
Have you spoken to Zeke at all since that tribal council?
We’ve been dealing with this since last July and being unable to talk about it has really been the worst. I’ve talked to Zeke on the phone several times and that’s been really helpful and healthy. It helped the healing begin, but it really couldn’t start until last night.
I love Zeke so much. He’s just so smart and so well-spoken and I have no doubt he will turn this into a beautiful thing. Even if he feels the need to for whatever reason to do it at my expense.
When did you know Zeke was transgender?
I suspected Zeke was transgender from the moment I saw him. And there were clues here and there throughout the whole thing. We didn’t know who Zeke was when he showed up. We didn’t have the luxury of watching his first season. [Editor note: Season 34 began filming before season 33 aired.] I don’t want to go into this whole this, that and the other about how I knew because I don’t think that’s respectful, not only to Zeke but to other trans people.
- To read Smith’s side of the story — including how his depression during and after his transition inspired him to audition for Survivor — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Why did you chose to out Zeke at tribal council?
There is no why. I don’t know why. I still to this day don’t know why. It was not something I ever saw as something that would be part of this game. I think you saw me say on the show that this was not about this game. There was no plot, no plan, no anything.
I was desperate and I was looking for a way out. The editing doesn’t show that Ozzy — when it was all said and done and I said, “I’m done. I’m going home. Let’s just be friends and chat and tell me what’s going on — he opened up and shared with me that he was in a secret alliance with Andrea and Zeke.
That’s when I saw the opening. So when I go back to camp and am talking to everyone about deception, I wasn’t thinking at all about trans. I think I was very clear to the producers who knew I was questioning Zeke’s gender that it wasn’t something that was relevant in the game. It wasn’t something I went to tribal intending to use.
I was arguing to everyone at tribal that there was this secret alliance and that they were all being deceived. That’s when Zeke spoke up. You don’t see Zeke saying, “There is no deception. Varner’s not telling the truth. There is no deception.” [regarding the secret alliance.] And emotionally it just came out.
What did you expect the reaction to be?
I didn’t have any expectations of how people would react. I had no expectation of how this was going to be a tool in the game. I didn’t even realize I’d done anything wrong. I thought Zeke was out and loud and proud. Who comes on a reality show not once but twice with a secret like that and nobody knows?
That was my messed up thinking at the time. I thought that the viewers knew and everybody knew. So when I was arguing at tribal and I say “I thought everybody knew,” I was talking about everybody at home watching.
I knew the 6 people in front of us didn’t know and so it just – when it dawned on me that nobody knew at home and he’s not out and that I am the reason he is now out, I just came unglued. I don’t even really remember a lot of it. I just remember I felt two feet tall and everyone was screaming at me and shaming it. It was a horrible moment and I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t apologize enough. You don’t see all of that and I understand why you don’t, I’m not complaining about the editing at all, but that’s what my thinking was: there was no thinking.
Zeke seems to take more offense to the reasoning you presented about transgender people than he did about you outing him.
One of the things that breaks my heart the most is that that’s one of the stigmas that trans people fight the most. People think trans people are out there deceiving and they’re predators and they’re hiding in bathrooms and stuff that’s just not true. It’s awful. We’ve got to stop that.
We have to stop discriminating and minimizing trans people. They are humans. [Sobbing again.] We have to acknowledge that humanity and their dignity and lift up their voices and never reduce them to the disgusting things all these bigots do and all these people who just don’t know and are acting out of fear.
I hurt Zeke and that’s something that I’ll never get over. My heart is open to him today and if he is reacting in any negative way I give him the space to do that – I deserve that.
You posted an apology on Twitter after the episode aired. What went into writing that?
When I came home, I immediately went to my trans friends and I sat them down and I said, “Here’s what I did. Here’s what happened and it was ugly it was so unfortunate.” But they know me and they know my heart. They know my soul and they know that’s not who I am.
I worked with them to make sure that I am learning and growing and helping other people learn and grow because that’s so important. I wrote that statement out of my own heart. I just sat down and wrote it one day. I knew it was the right thing to say and the right thing to do. It was real. It was from my heart and as genuine as it could possibly be.
I know that there are going to be haters out here that are just aren’t going to buy anything I have to say. I have been reading and working a lot with Dr. Brené Brown, who is the shame expert in the world, and she’s helped me understand that vulnerability is the antidote to shame. Just opening yourself up and being honest and genuine helps wash that shame away and it’s just been so beneficial to me.
What has the reaction been from other Survivor contestants?
I’ve got some wonderful people in my life that have helped me through this moment. Sarah and I spoke last night about the growth in her world. She called me right before tribal. Ironically, out of all the people at that tribal, Sarah and Debbie have been the most supportive by reaching out.
Sarah explained to me that her family would probably have reacted the way a lot of hateful people in the world react just because of where she’s from and what they’re in the middle of. But now her family is sitting down and they are talking about it and they are sympathizing with trans people.
And I just hope that those kinds of conversations are happening all over the country. It’s just so important that that’s where we head. As bad as this is and as bad as I feel, I’m glad that’s what’s happened as a part of this.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (at 8 p.m. ET) on CBS.