EXCLUSIVE: 'Survivor' Contestant Jeff Varner In His Own Words: Outing Zeke Smith and the Shame That Followed

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Photo: Getty Images/CBS
On the seventh episode of CBS' Survivor: Game Changers, which aired April 12, castaway Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by Jeff Varner in a desperate attempt to save himself from elimination. "There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don't even understand," Jeff said, looking at Zeke. "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?" Ten months after the episode was filmed, Jeff told Entertainment Tonight that the moment was not planned, but the fallout was swift. Not only was Jeff immediately rebuked by fellow cast mates, who sent the three-time contestant home, but he was later fired from his real estate job as backlash grew. In the weeks since, Zeke has told ET that he was ready to embrace his former cast mate “because that's how we encourage people to change and turn adversaries into allies.” Ahead of the live finale, which will see Jeff reunited with Zeke, the former contestant writes in an exclusive column for ET about the shame that followed and his attempts to rehabilitate his life. – – – –
A faint smell of eucalyptus wafts under the door. A somewhat strong scent, not quite thick enough to slice through the silence surrounding me. The slow methodic tick, tock, tick, tock of an aqua blue alarm clock cuts through each second as Dr. Whitney Akers, a petite young LGBT therapist stares at me to softly ask, “Why do you think you feel that way?” Her room at Greensboro’s Lotus Center is a place I’d find myself many times over the next 10 months trying to make sense of the worst decision of my life. Until I die, I am that gay guy who outed that trans guy on international television. There’s no escaping it. It is a mess of my own making that doesn’t allow a day to pass without remorse and regret. A colossal mistake that has neither excuse nor defense. A move of reckless abandon that ignited a storm that hit the Fiji shore the moment I turned to Zeke Smith and asked, “Why didn’t you tell everyone you’re transgender?,” like he somehow had an obligation to do so. I temporarily lost my mind.
Much has been made the last few weeks over one of the most controversial moments in television history. And I’ve sat quietly, watching and growing. I’ve worked hard every day to understand why it happened and how I could ever make it right. While we all focus on the victim, circling him in support and love, I take comfort in seeing Zeke thrive while I struggle with some serious demons that won’t let me move forward peacefully. I caused this whole situation. So, any bricks pounded against my face are well-deserved, right? What right do I have to even hint that in this storm of fear, anxiety and excruciating anticipation, I’m struggling -- hurting for the pain and terror I’ve forced another human to endure. Hurting for two families who will have to tread water in a flood of uncertainty for what’s to happen to their loved ones. Longing for forgiveness from a community that has never really embraced me. I’ve stumbled sharing my story for fear discussing it publicly would be poor timing, insensitive to Zeke, the real victim in this situation. Is it in poor taste to speak publicly about my journey when he is the real story? Should I sit down, shut up and suffer in silence? Maybe. And you can stop reading here if you don’t care to hear it. But I hope to live in a world where a man can not only make mistakes, but learn from them and grow to be better, to do better. For those who share that with me, this is my story. MORE: Jeff Varner Tearfully Admits to Being in Therapy Since Outing Zeke Smith on 'Survivor'
THE MOMENT That breezy June night in Fiji, I walked into tribal council wearing a suit of desperation that weighed down every step I took. What happened after I sat down is still a blur. I’ve blocked most of it out and have no interest in traveling back there ever again. But there are moments from that night firmly seared into my memory. The shame circle. For about an hour during that tribal council I sat in the middle of a group of people who’d been lying to me for days in full-on justified attack mode. I heard their voices screaming at me. I saw their faces contorted with pain. Tears in eyes. Fingers pointing at me. Many fingers. I felt bolts of anger and contempt hit exactly where they were intended to land. It came from all directions, tearing down the walls I’d spent decades building, revealing every drop of shame I’d stored inside for 51 years of life. I have never been more vulnerable than I was in those moments. I also remember leaving, walking down a lonely spotlit path away from the game I’d given almost 17 years to. “What did I just do?,” “Why did I do that?,” “I deserve to be shot” and other shards of self-abuse thrashed around inside my tortured head. A desperate, starving and sleep-deprived soul cowering to the slowly arising reality that this is not just a game. I also remember falling into the arms of Dr. Liza Siegel, the show’s psychologist. She’s the force we’ve come to trust to help smooth over our waves of confliction and confusion. As Zeke went back into a game with his life’s most terrifying secret exposed, I walked away in shock and shame that I had opened a man’s life to discrimination and danger, something I never would’ve done in my real life. Two lives that would be rocked forever now moving in opposite directions. One toward a frightening future and the other wondering if they were even worthy of one. I was not OK. For days, I sat in my shame, finding it very difficult to talk about what had happened without breaking down. It took a few days to sink in that not only had I ruined someone’s life, but in a few months the world was going to watch me do it. The fear and pain was too much to bear. Thank God for Dr. Liza, who kept me occupied with therapy sessions, writing assignments, YouTube videos on shame, some really good Fijian food and seeds of hope that soon I would stop abusing myself and start to forgive. People who make mistakes have the right to be forgiven. And that forgiveness, though it was nowhere in sight, had to begin with me. It’s a notion I would struggle with for months.  Before I left Fiji, I wrote Zeke a letter. Laced with apology and pain, I offered the few words I could find. I had no idea how he felt. I couldn’t even imagine what was happening in his innermost thoughts and fears. When you’re on that island you can easily lose sight of the real world, and it’s not until days later that you reconnect with thoughts of what waits for you at home. I feared for him as he began to process a brave new life he didn’t choose.  MORE: Inside Jeff Varner's Decision to Out Zeke Smith at Tribal Council and What Viewers Didn't See on TV
Photo: CBS
THE JOURNEY BEGINS Back at home, I wasted no time. And in a defeated state, I told my friends and family what I had done. I told my transgender friends, which did not go well. I found it incredibly difficult to admit out loud I was the one who did that, and even more difficult to receive their lectures, their disapproving expressions and their shame. A fresh new helping of shame I gladly gobbled up. After all, I deserved it. I was standing before the people who loved me most a tortured bad person in search of some way to be a good guy who simply did a bad thing. Until I got there, I couldn’t begin to process what was happening. For the next four months, I lived in a constant state of doubt, fear, anxiety and preoccupation with Zeke, his friends and family and what they all must be going through. I dissected all those emotions every week with Dr. Whitney, digging through shame, amassing a small library of books and videos along the way. Thousands of words on shame and how one might be able to survive it. I was a broken man armed with people who cared and tools to begin to dig myself out of this self-inflicted prison. But nothing gave me more hope on my journey than an unexpected email from Zeke asking if I’d like to talk. I was ill-prepared for that conversation, but drawn to it as if a force greater than me knew it was what I needed. The day of the call, I was terrified. I stalled in complete fear of coming back together with the man who’d lived rent-free in my head and heart since June. I made every excuse in the book to wait another 30 minutes. What was I going to say? What would he say? Then another 10 minutes. How can he forgive me like he did that night when I’m struggling so hard to forgive myself? I finally hit the phone, heart pounding. There’s no stopping now. With every ring my chest tightened. I couldn’t breathe. I won’t go into the detail of that conversation, but after it was over I felt that suit of shame I’d worn for more than four months begin to lift away. He forgave me again, promising to not come after me in anger when the press came calling for explanations. He seemed to understand the situation better than I ever could have. In this and other calls we’d have over the months, he had this way of easing the fear that his life would be difficult and he would always hold me as responsible. But he was above that. He sounded supported, strong and ready for it -- a far cry from where I was in that moment. The grace and compassion he seemed to share helped open the door to my first steps toward true healing. After four months and a ton of work, I knew my real journey had just begun. MORE: Jeff Varner 'Devastated' to Be Fired From Job After Outing 'Survivor' Contestant Zeke Smith
SHAME, SHAME, SHAME From medication to meditation, I spent the next several months digging out of depression and working to understand the forgiveness I was still unwilling to give myself. I had five months before this painful moment would be broadcast for all to see. Zeke would be exposed to everyone and terrified at what lied ahead. That shame circle in Fiji would pale in comparison to the reaction America would soon deliver. From both of us, it would require a strength and resolve I could see, but couldn’t quite grasp yet. My shame and I eventually became best friends. It would sit beside me as I prayed for God to protect Zeke and be with those who love him. I’d reach out and touch it every day as I worked to chip away at that shadow deep inside fueling defensiveness, stirring up anxiety and sowing the seeds of low self-esteem. I was beginning to understand just how powerful shame really is. It keeps us stuck. It blames and convinces us that we’re not worthy of love. It affects every aspect of our lives, and we all live with it. We take it on early in life as we try and learn how to navigate our society and live up to its standards. Shame teaches us that we have to be good to get love, to feel safe and have our needs met. And if we’re not, we blame ourselves and believe we are not worthy. Processing all this has been my most intimate struggle. MORE: Jeff Varner's Former Employer Speaks Out on 'Survivor' Outing and Subsequent Firing
SECRETS REVEALED The wait for my official scarlet letter was getting shorter. I knew that within a few weeks, a man’s life could be ruined forever and I had caused it. He would be hurt and no one would be happy. I couldn’t see it yet, but I could hear the tidal wave of contempt heading my way. It would be massive. In my reading, I’d learned a little bit about contempt. When we battle our deepest shame we unwittingly give birth to destructive energies and damaging tactics to protect ourselves. Contempt is one of those. When we’re hurt and angry, we use it to fire the focus off of us in an effort to protect our shame, so no one sees it’s there. I began to realize that all the anger and hate on its way to me, at the end of the day, had nothing to do with me. And that changed everything. Understanding the simple notion that haters are just hurting helped me see things from their perspective. Empathy. The secret to shedding your shame is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. As the season began to air I found myself practicing empathy more and more, getting stronger every time. For the first time in months I was beginning to feel OK. Since Zeke was always top of mind for me, I started to struggle with guilt for having a good day. Despite Zeke’s forgiveness, I still felt obligated to torture myself. And there were still many nights I didn’t sleep at all. But healing was upon me and I was feeling more and more ready as each episode passed. Week after week I watched, looking for any clue as to how the producers would choose to portray that moment. You know your story in the game. You lived it. But you don’t know the narrative producers will choose for you. Knowing where my story would eventually end, I became obsessed with how producers would choose to get me there. I convinced myself the harsher the edit, the harder the fallout. And it was a tough watch. Week after week, peppered with the predictable Probst declaration, “Varner, absolutely worthless,” I grew more convinced we were building to a version of me no one had seen in 17 years. I bounced from feeling OK and comfortable to deep sadness and panic. The death of the Varner everyone loved and enjoyed was days away, about to give birth to a new coat of ugly I’d wear forever. MORE: 'Survivor' Contestant Zeke Smith Is 'Excited' to Speak With Jeff Varner at Reunion
Photo: CBS
THE STORM ARRIVES The night of April 12, I cleared the house. Just me and my partner sitting down to face what we’d worked so hard to prepare for. The moment of truth was an hour away. What transpired next is a blur. I don’t remember a lot of what I saw happen that night. And I will never go back and watch it again. The clearest thing for me is the grip my partner had on me, wrapped around me tight, letting me know, as he so often does, that I’m not alone. I sat in silence, my breathing shallow, staring intently at the screen and seeing nothing. When it was over, I cried a little. But I took a deep breath that seemed to organically embrace the first sense of relief I had felt in 10 months. It was over. That moment I’ve waited and worked so hard to be ready for had come and gone, and I was still breathing. I decided to avoid social media for the next two weeks, as I had come to learn our society, blindly trudging through its shame, would rise up its contempt, anger, fear, pain and defensiveness to fire at my heart. I dispersed a team of close allies to manage the wave, deleted the calls for my suffering and the demands for my death. As they worked to delete the negative and block those who persisted in spreading it, I saw the pain in their faces. I knew the world was attacking back, and likely in ways much worse than I had anticipated. As I did hours of press the next day, I opened my heart and spoke in the truth I’d worked so hard since Fiji to embrace and own. I can never defend what happened on that island. I will never make an excuse for it. I’ve owned it from the start. Interview after interview, I poured my heart out in pure and genuine regret and support for Zeke. Though I spent months working on me, I will never lose sight of the fact this situation will always be about what I unleashed on his life. That will never be lost on me.  MORE: Zeke Smith Says Jeff Varner Should Be 'Embraced' After Outing Him on 'Survivor'
IT’S RAINED ENOUGH You may already know the rest of my roller coaster ride. I was cowardly fired from my job the day after the episode. My curiosity got the best of me and I dared to take a peek online to see what people were saying. It was a moment of weakness that found me suddenly ducking the most hateful emails I’ve ever read, graphic death threats and anonymously written hopes I die a “slow and painful death.” My family was tormented by seeing someone they unconditionally love publicly beaten into a pulp, dared to even grunt or wince. Everyone was against me. The show was against me. My cast was against me. Many I love looked at me in disappointment. One of the authors who’d offered me the most hope was tweeting about me in not-so-kind terms. I was devastated all over again. Despite my newfound strength, I was back at the lowest point of my life, questioning if that life was even worthy of living. But I rose. I stood up proud that I’ve walked through a typhoon of emotion tossing and thrashing me about and made it through. I spent many a day in that eucalyptus-scented room full of tick tocks reviving my strength and restoring my faith this would all be OK. Shame is powerful. It will always call motives into question. It is accusatory and pulls you back, preventing you from growth. For this entire situation to ultimately make sense, I have no choice but to move forward. I can’t start a new chapter by rereading the last one. I forgive all who have shunned me and tried to hurt me. I get it. I offer grace and willingness to engage with anyone who wants to work toward something, anything better. I’m not afraid to share my truth. I did a bad thing. I made a mistake I owned. I am not a bad person. I do not believe transgender people are deceptive. I do not have hate in my heart. I am not a bigot. And I love and respect Zeke Smith, hoping that he’s OK and about to start thriving like never before. I’m proud of him. But I’m most proud to say that today I do not walk this planet in shame. And I’m no longer hurt by someone else’s. Zeke and I did not go through this to simply go through this. If we let it, our pain will reveal our purpose. Seeds can’t take hold and grow without the rain. And I think we both agree, it’s rained enough. The live finale of Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesday, May 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.