‘Survivor’ Castaway Jeff: ‘I Assaulted Zeke That Night, Outting Someone Is Assault’

‘Survivor: Game Changers’ (CBS)

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Gordon Holmes: There are two stories that are going to come out of last night. Zeke has been outted as transgender and now he has to go about his life with that information known to the public. I feel like that story is being told. Zeke himself penned a piece for The Hollywood Reporter. The other is about a guy who supports the LGBT community who made a mistake that could harm the LGBT community. What’s it been like to live with what happened for so long?
Jeff Varner: It’s been ten months of hell. I have dug through all kinds of stuff. A couple of different therapists. Been involved with many different LGBT groups. I’m heading in a direction that I can’t wait to tell you about as we go forward, but this morning is not about me. This morning is about Zeke and transgender people and what I have done. And I am profoundly and profusely sorry. I have no excuses. I can’t sit here and make one. I made a massive mistake. I own it 1000%. I know that I hurt Zeke. I know that I hurt those who love him. I know that when we’re in pain and we’re in fear, we’re dangerous and we do the wrong things and we say the wrong things.

Holmes: Have you spoken with Zeke since that night?
Varner: We’ve spoken several times over the last few months. He continues to forgive me. He just an amazing human. I’m amazed at that forgiveness. But, I also know that watching that had to have been doubly traumatic as it was for me. And it’s put him in a different place. I think he’s calling me a bigot today. He’s calling me full of hate today. That is the opposite of who I am. I respect him. I deserve it. If he wants to take swings at me, I’m the one to hand him the bat. I give him every inch of every room to react how he needs to react. I respect him for that. I deserve it. And I’m sure that it’s frustrating for the transgender community that I’m the one out here talking about this today. We need trans voices. I hate that we don’t have more trans voices out here talking about this situation. We’ve got to stop separating and dividing. Trans people are humans and we need to elevate their dignity and their voices and lift them up. We shouldn’t reduce them to things that objectify them and dehumanize them. They are not deceitful people, they’re just trying to live their truth…safely…

Note: At this point, Jeff starts to get very emotional.

Varner: I’m sorry.
Holmes: It’s OK.
Varner: They’re just trying to thrive, you know? And I’m just sick of the fact that I am part of what some people will use as a tool to further do this to them. It’s horrible. I assaulted Zeke that night, outting someone is assault. It robs them of so much. It stigmatizes them and it shames them. It forces them back in and that’s the opposite of what needs to happen. I’m devastated. I will forever be sorry and do…I’ll talk to you in the future about what I’m doing and where I’m headed…but today I just want to make sure that this is all about Zeke.

Holmes: I had some advance notice of what was going to happen last night. And I felt sick watching the lead up. But in the end, it felt like it was headed in a positive direction. Zeke said that his “Survivor” experience has made him strong enough to deal with this. The tribe supported him. He forgave you. Do you know why Zeke is feeling differently today?
Varner: This was us then and we’ve grown and moved past it. I’m not sure what caused him to shift his gear, but it’s OK. I support him. I don’t know that Zeke and I will ever be friends, but it’s important for me to have him know how much I care about him and people like him. I’ll spend the rest of my life doing whatever I can to make this right, because it’s wrong. It’s not in my character. It’s a game and nobody can truly understand what we’re going through. What that “Survivor” brain does to us. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses, because I’m not. There are no excuses. I don’t know where he is today or where his head is, I can only read what he’s writing. He’s wrong on a bunch of levels about who I am as a person. I knew Zeke for five days. We spoke probably an hour and a half total. He doesn’t know me. I hope that he one day will. I’ve heard from so many transgender people today who understand and are inviting me to be a part of their effort. I’m so grateful for that. I just love Zeke, I’m so profoundly sorry.

Holmes: It seems like all parties involved are dedicated to turning this into a vehicle for good. For bringing transgender issues to the forefront. And I know you don’t want to talk about you, but you’re a human being. The “Survivor” community reaches out to me. And yeah, there’s a lot of “(expletive deleted) Jeff Varner.” But, there’s also a lot of “How is Jeff today. I hope he’s alright.” You’ve been living with this for months. Now that it’s finally out there, does that help you move on now that you can more openly support these issues?
Varner: Yeah…I’m not ashamed to tell you that coming out of this I had thoughts of suicide. What I’d done is horrible. But when Zeke reached out to me and we were able to talk, that’s when I felt like the healing began. We both feel like we’re both victims on some level for many different reasons. Not being able to talk about it has been tough. Last night was an end in a lot of ways and a beginning in a lot of ways. There is a relief that it’s out there and I can start making amends publicly and start trying to help people. I forgot what you asked me. I’m a wreck. (Laughs)
Holmes: (Laughs) You got there.

Holmes: There was some confusion about how you knew Zeke was transgender. When we spoke in the pre-game interview, you said that you had noticed things about his physique that had led you to believe that he was transgender. Was there ever a point where Zeke opened up to you or was this based on your pre-game observations?
Varner: Not directly. He talked about all kinds of things that led me indirectly, not only that he was OK and out, I believed he was out. I had no idea that Zeke had not come out. Everything led to that. I don’t want to talk about how I knew, because in respect to Zeke, I don’t think that’s the right direction to go. When I said that out loud at Tribal, I was not 100% certain.

Holmes: Sarah is an example of someone who didn’t have much experience with the transgender community. She met a guy she liked and when she found out his story, it opened her eyes. Hopefully there are a lot of Sarahs in the audience.
Varner: I want to thank Sarah for that. That went a long way. Out of everyone who was at Tribal, she’s the one I’ve heard from the most. She’s been so supportive. She explained to me how this moment and preparing her family to watch it has changed their perception. She went out of her way to make me understand that no matter what Zeke and I are going through, this has been a positive thing for her family, it has to be for others. Ultimately, that is where this will go, but right now what’s important to me is that Zeke is safe and healthy and that he hears me when I say I am profoundly sorry. I didn’t come after him with malice. It wasn’t intended to be a commentary. I hate that the deception theme was there because it’s such a massive stigma that trans people deal with. People think they’re deceiving and dangerous and they’re not. These people are strong and courageous. All of these bathroom bills are horrible. They’re not about whether trans people can use the bathroom. They’re about whether trans people have the right to exist in public. There are so many people, especially here in North Carolina, our hateful General Assembly is trying to erase trans people from our society. I really want to do everything I can to stop that crap. I hope that this opens up the door for Zeke and I to do some great stuff.

Holmes: I know you don’t have to do exit press. I’d imagine this is the second worst day of your life. But I think you’re doing the right thing by using this platform to further transgender awareness.
Varner: I hope that any press that anybody puts out there is pro-trans and anti-outting. We’re both trying to make this a positive thing.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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