Survivor Game Changers – Jeff Varner interview: The Zeke question, apologies, and aftermath

Jeff Varner interviewSpeaking with Jeff Varner this morning is challenging, to say the least. Survivor exit interviews have been a staple as a writer / reviewer ever since Survivor: Samoa, and never has there been such a mental challenge going into one. What Jeff did last night to Zeke Smith was horrible, and there’s no other way to look at it. Outside someone as transgender is a terrible invasion of someone’s privacy, regardless of intention or emotion in the moment, and it goes so far beyond the typical realms of this game.

With this interview, what we mostly wanted to do was give Jeff a platform to try and explain his thought process not only when he made the decision to out Zeke, but also now as he goes through a media tour and deals with the aftermath.

We know that this is a very different interview than most, and of course there was so much more we wanted to get into both on the subject of this and the game.

CarterMatt – I know that you’ve done a lot of interviews already today and you’ve probably answered several questions a number of different times. Is there anything that you want to say that you haven’t to date, or a question that you wished was asked before now?

Jeff Varner – No. Every interviewer has been very thorough, and I feel like I’ve made the points I needed to make. Ask me whatever you want.

I want to discuss the exercise of what we’re doing here today. After everything last night you could’ve just posted your statement on Twitter, done an interview or two, and then [decided to stop]. What are you hoping to accomplish in doing all of this?

That’s a good question. Wow. There’s a lot that I want to get out today — not so much [when it comes to] Survivor, as that seems so trivial at this point. What happened at Tribal was horrible, and I want to preface this by saying that I cannot and will not defend ever what I did. I own it, 100%. It was a massive mistake. I am swimming with regret and guilt and hope that I can be an example to people that you should never do what I did.

Outing someone is clearly assault. When we out people, we marginalize them, we shame them, we stigmatize them. We shove them into the shadows and force them to not be their authentic selves. We don’t allow them to fit in. What a horrible place for them to be and what a horrible thing for me to do.

I am profoundly sorry — not only to Zeke and his friends and his family, but to every trans person in the world who my actions hurt. I ripped the scab off of so many painful situations. There are reasons why that happened, there are decisions that were made that went into why that happened, but at the end of the day outing someone is a horrible thing to do and nobody should ever do it.

Let me also say here that I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating and angering for the trans community that I’m out here talking about this today. We meed more trans voices out there and people to stand up and show what strong and wonderful people they are. We need to stop minimizing and discriminating against trans people. It’s so important to acknowledge who they are as people and elevate the dignity of these folks. So many trans people are strong and powerful and doing great things. If we as a society weren’t being so hateful and bigoted and afraid of them, they’d be able to live their authentic selves.

I hope that if there’s any message that comes out of this today, it’s to take trans people and elevate them. Put their voices out there and let them be heard. I know when this happened last July that I deeply wounded not only Zeke and those around him, but everyone else.

We in the LGBT community (Varner is openly gay) are in pain and in fear. It all boils down to fear. People who are afraid and in a desperate situation are dangerous. I was example of that last night. We say the wrong things and do the wrong things.

(From here, Varner goes more into his relationship with Zeke, both on the show and now.)

Zeke and I have talked several times over the past few months, he has continually forgiven me. I understand today that this forgiveness is not as out there as it had been. I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s dropping words like ‘bigot’ and saying ‘I’m full of hate,’ and that’s not true. That’s not accurate. That’s not who I am. He doesn’t know me. He spent five days with me in a game. He’s probably spent in total two and a half or three hours talking to me. He doesn’t know me well enough to throw that out there.

But, I understand why he’s saying that. I give him every inch of room to come out and just react however he needs to react. If he wants to throw me under the bus, tell me what bus I need to lay down in front of and I’ll do it. Anything that I can do to help make his point and elevate his voice, I’ll do it — even at the expense of me.

What I want to do next is try to get some better understanding as to precisely what happened on the show last night. Going into Tribal Council, did you plan on making this declaration? Was this something that you had discussed in interviews or in some capacity with anyone in advance?

I suspected Zeke was transgender when I first met him. I have trans friends. I don’t want to go into details about how I knew — I don’t think that’s respectful and it doesn’t benefit Zeke at all.

I did chat with producers during the game about that, and I said that I thought it was beautiful and I celebrated it. There is a lot of sound on tape of me talking about how wonderful it is and how happy I was for him. Zeke never came out and told me personally, but I saw signals and little signs throughout the game that confirmed it, but not in any way that ever made me want to use it as a card in the game. Ever. It was never my intention, and I was very clear with producers on that during my interviews — it didn’t make any difference to me, and it’s not something that I wanted to use in the context of the game. It made zero difference to me.

There is a lot that you don’t see. Tribal was a two-hour deal, and not twenty minutes like you saw last night. There was a lot of stuff that happened before. The three and four hours before Tribal help to put things further into context. Ozzy and I were in the woods — I was looking for an idol and he was there making sure I didn’t find one. I came right out and said ‘I know I’m leaving, I’m gone. It doesn’t matter.’ His guard came down, and he talked about his secret alliance with Zeke and Andrea. I saw that as an opening to try to convince [Tai, Debbie, and Sarah] that they were on the bottom. I wanted to tell them that they were being deceived and there was deception. The theme of deception started with that, and when I got to Tribal and I started arguing that — you see a lot of that, but not all of it — and then Zeke popped up and said ‘there is no deception here. Jeff is lying.’

Emotionally, that question [about why Zeke wasn’t telling the other players he was trans] just came out of my mouth. It was a horrible thing, but I didn’t realize when I said that what I was actually doing.

I want to reemphasize that I am making no excuse and I own it and I’m not defending myself at all. When I threw out that [question] the theme of deception became about something else [than my original point], and that is so unfortunate. That was not what I was thinking, and that’s not what I was trying to lay out there. It took a little while for me to understand that.

Seasons 33 and 34 were filmed back-to-back. Zeke filmed his season, and then turned around and came right back. We didn’t have the luxury of seeing Millennials vs. Gen X. I didn’t know anything else about him. The only thing that I knew was that I thought he was trans, and then I started wondering why he was there, how he got there, and what he did in his first season that made him be invited back so quickly.

[With that], I started studying him. In every conversation that I had with people, his name popped up here and there. It was clear to me that he was playing not only me, but other people. I just saw him as Russell Hantz. When Russell when out to do Heroes vs. Villains right after Samoa, none of those heroes and villains had any idea who he was. Sandra Diaz-Twine told me that for Heroes vs. Villains, Russell showed up at the airport carrying a Bible. He was deceiving people, and deception was a part of this game.

In my mind, I was thinking that there was this trans man who played Survivor for two seasons back to back, and there was no way that nobody knew it. Who goes on a reality show with such a big secret, and nobody knows? In my mind, he was out, he was loud, and he was proud. How could he not be? It never crossed my mind that no one knew. So, when I was arguing with people in Tribal that I thought that everybody knew, I didn’t mean the six people sitting there. I meant America. I meant CBS, casting, and production. I was basically alerting the tribe in front of me that this is Russell Hantz.

If someone had outed Russell in the middle of Heroes vs. Villains, that would’ve been a very good thing. In my warped Survivor brain, that’s what I was arguing. Then, it dawned on me that [I was wrong], and I just came unglued.

Jeff, I’m being told that we’re out of time.

I just want to mention that I think Zeke is a wonderful human being, and my heart goes out to him and his family. I profusely apologize again, and I hope that it’s okay. I know that I hurt him, and I support him.


More insight

Varner had a lot that he wanted to say in this interview and to all media. If there was more time, maybe we would’ve touched on more — we certainly had many more questions in our notes to ask. In the end, though, this was an extraordinary situation and it felt right to allow him to his thoughts out there.

In the end, there’s no getting around the fact that Varner’s legacy is forever changed by what he said, and it’s a shame since he is a player we loved through two seasons and were thrilled to see back out there when the cast was announced. It’s a shame that he made the terrible decision that he made, and there is no sense in us further editorializing this. For now, we suggest that you take a look at Zeke’s full piece via The Hollywood Reporter, where he offers us his side on events both on the show and after.

You can see both our review for last night’s episode, and also our own take on how CBS handled the Tribal Council, by heading over to the link here. (Photo: CBS.)

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