You could hear the emotion and exhaustion in Jeff Varner’s voice. Just hours after outing Zeke Smith as transgender on a tense episode of Survivor: Game Changers, Varner joined us on the phone for a conversation to explain his side of the story. We were prepared with a plethora of questions, but as our interview began, it was clear he had a lot to get off his chest. Limited to only 10 minutes, we only had the time to ask a few things, as Varner delivered very lengthy replies.
This was admittedly one of the most difficult Survivor interviews we’ve ever been a part of. Although that episode filmed 10 months ago, you will find Varner’s actions still cut him deep.
SheKnows: How are you doing today?
Jeff Varner: It’s been better. I’ve been talking nonstop since 8:30 this morning, so pardon my voice. I think I’ve cried myself to where there’s no more tears to cry. Just know I’m devastated and I’m doing my best over here.
SK: When you walked into that Tribal Council, were you planning all along on outing Zeke as transgender or was it something you decided in the moment?
JV: No. That’s not something that I planned. It’s not something I intended. The editing [made] it look like it was, but [those] were conversations I was having about other things. Earlier — right before Tribal — I spent several hours looking for an Idol. Ozzy was hiding behind trees and following me around to make sure I didn’t find it. I caught him doing it, and I was like, “Ozzy, just come to me. If you find it, then I don’t have it. So just hang out with me. I’m going home. This game is over. Just be here with me.”
It’s like I [got him to bring] his guard down. I had my guard down. In that conversation he admitted that he was in a secret alliance with Zeke and Andrea. You don’t see that in the show. I don’t know if the camera angle wasn’t right, but [for] whatever reason, that was the beginning of the discussion of deception.
I saw that as an out. I took that [information] back to camp and pulled people away one at a time and started talking about deception…
When I went into Tribal, I was arguing [that I shouldn’t be voted off] because they [were all being lied to]. I had ’em right there. I thought they were all about to flip [the vote]. You don’t see this because it was edited out, but Zeke spoke up and said, “There is no deception. Jeff is lying. There’s no deception here.”
Emotionally, in my Survivor brain, it just [came out]… I had no expectation of any reaction. I had no expectation of any effect that it would have. It just was something that happened. You know after watching me for three seasons that I have a tendency to open my mouth when my back is against the wall and say stupid shit. This was an example of that. I’ve been working for 10 months to find out why I do that.
That’s what was at play in that moment… It never dawned on me for a second that Zeke was in the closet. I couldn’t even fathom the fact that you’d come on a show like this — not once, but twice — with a big old secret like that. Surely somebody knows. It’s gonna come out. How are you hiding this? To me, he was out — loud and proud. I thought the viewers who watched Millennials vs. Gen-X knew because we didn’t have a luxury due to timing of the show to see Millennials vs. Gen-X. We didn’t know who Zeke was. So to me, Zeke was Russell [Hantz.] I needed to let everybody know, “Here’s Russell. Here’s what Russell is doing.” I didn’t think telling everybody about his gender identity [was bad] because everybody knew it.
When I argued, I thought everybody knew. I don’t mean the six people that were sitting there — I mean the public, CBS and the producers. When it dawned on me that nobody knew and [when I realized] what I had done, I couldn’t even breathe. That’s not who I am… I would never in a million years do that. The fact that — here I am, not only doing that to a human, but doing it on television — is just too much. It happened during a two-hour Tribal and you don’t see all of it. There was a whole meltdown…
Let me just really be clear: I’m not making any excuses. I’m not defending myself in any way, shape or form. What I did was absolutely horrifically horrible. It was a massive mistake — the worst mistake of my life. I would never in a million years do that again, but [I do] hope that nobody ever does that… When you out somebody, you marginalize them; you stigmatize them; you shame them; you push them back into the closet and force them to not be who they authentically are. You don’t allow them to fit in, and that’s just a disgustingly horrible place to be. When you out somebody, you insult them. I’m just so upset that I’m the poster child for outing at the moment. I hope that everybody can look at me as an example of why you should never do that. There’s a lot that I hope comes out of this.
I know I took you down another road. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to derail your questioning…
SK: It’s OK. I know this has been an emotional roller coaster for you. You posted a lengthy apology on social media shortly after the episode aired taking responsibility for your actions. Some have accepted your apology but many others are rejecting it. What is your response to those who don’t believe your apology is genuine? [You can read Varner’s apology after his response below.]
JV: I don’t have a response [for] those people. [I want] good things to come from this shameful situation. I’ve been working with several doctors and a lot of people in the LGBT community to get past this. One thing that Dr. Brown talks about is “the arena.” You can’t say a word to me if you’re not one of the people in the arena getting your ass kicked. If you’re just a spectator, then what you have to say is not important to me…
What those people have to say is none of my business. They all have their own issues that make them say and do whatever they need to do. What they saw last night unleashed pain. People in pain react in dangerous ways. Let them say [whatever]. Let them believe [whatever]. All I have to say to that is I hear you; I agree with you on a lot of different levels; I respect you; and I give you room for that pain, and am so terribly sorry. That apology was genuine. I don’t care to acknowledge anything anybody says otherwise. They don’t know me. They don’t know my journey. They’re not in my arena.
SK: Have you spoken to Zeke in the past 10 months since that episode was filmed?
JV: Yes. Several times. It took a while… I reached out to him, he then reached out to me and we scheduled a phone call. We got back in July [from taping the show] and talked in October. That July to October was horrible. Talking to Zeke for the first time — hearing his forgiveness [and] grace just amazed me. Zeke is an amazing human being. I think watching it has sort of stirred up some really awful emotions for him. He’s throwing some things at me this morning that aren’t fair. I understand it and I respect it. Zeke has all the room in the world to react however he needs to react. I get it. I support him 100 percent. If he needs to take a swing at me, I will give him the bat. I love Zeke. I have great respect for him. Every conversation I’ve had with him has been, ‘We’re gonna get through this. I forgive you.’ That’s what I am leaning on. I love Zeke. I think very highly of him.
SK: What was going through your mind as the episode aired and you had to relive that night all over again?
JV: There was a lot going on in my mind. Mostly all day yesterday, all I could think about was Zeke, his family and his friends [and how they were preparing] to watch it. I watched it alone with my boyfriend, and I never once, in that entire hour of viewing, thought about myself. I watched Zeke’s face. I watched Zeke’s eyes. I lived that experience again through his experience. I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of his reaction. I’m so grateful for his grace in his reaction. I think he is a walking, talking beautiful example of how someone should handle a situation like that.
I will forever lift the voice of Zeke. I think we all should be lifting the voices of trans people. That’s what needs to happen. We’ve got to stop minimizing, marginalizing and discriminating against these people. They’re humans. They’re dignified humans, and we need to lift their voices and let them be heard because that’s the only way we’re gonna move forward. All this stupid bathroom bill bullshit angers me so much. It’s not about bathrooms, at all. It’s about whether or not a trans person has human rights. It’s about erasing trans people from society. That’s horrible. I don’t know where you live, but I know that California passed bathroom protection for LGBT people several years ago. In the four years [since] that’s been enacted, absolutely nothing has happened. What has happened is more important. Trans people feel included. They feel like their leaders and their legislatures support them. It’s creating an environment where they can be their authentic selves and thrive… which is what we really want for everybody.
SK: Out of three seasons you’ve competed on the show, do you believe this situation with Zeke is your defining Survivor moment?
JV: No. One mistake does not define a human being. I will leave other people to decide what my defining moment is. I’ve been in the Survivor family longer than anybody on this season. This organization, this production team, this network has been nothing but gracious and wonderful to me. I will forever be grateful. Once a Survivor, always a Survivor. I’m in this family until the end, and so is Zeke. We are together. We will be together. This will all be a positive, wonderful thing. I’ll let other people decide how to define me.