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‘A horrible, horrible mistake’ – ‘Survivor’ contestant regrets outing transgender castmate

Jeff Varner gets his torch extinguished by ‘Survivor’ host Jeff Probst. Varner came under fire after outing transgender contestant Zeke Smith.
Jeff Varner gets his torch extinguished by ‘Survivor’ host Jeff Probst. Varner came under fire after outing transgender contestant Zeke Smith. CBS

A North Carolina contestant on “Survivor” says he made “a horrible, horrible mistake” in outing a fellow contestant as transgender on an emotional episode of the popular CBS reality TV competition that aired Wednesday night.

Jeff Varner, a Greensboro real-estate broker and former TV journalist, came under instant and intense criticism from his fellow castmates, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and social media after he disclosed during the show that contestant Zeke Smith is transgender.

“I am just profoundly sorry I hurt him and I hurt people who love him and I hurt people like him,” Varner, 50, said in an interview Thursday.

Varner was competing on “Survivor” for the third time in a season that brought back previous all-star players. The season is called “Game Changers” – for the contestants who were known for making big moves in their previous quests to win $1 million. This season’s episodes were filmed last summer in the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji.

Varner, who fell short of the $1 million “Survivor” prize in his first two seasons, found himself on the bottom of the pecking order and faced the threat of elimination in the Tribal Council ceremony that aired Wednesday. He attempted to save himself by casting suspicion on other tribe mates, including Smith. That’s when Varner turned to Smith and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?” – a fact Varner had picked up on but that most other players did not seem to know.

CBS and “Survivor” producers also had not mentioned that Smith is transgender – either this season or on a previous season when he competed. Smith had played as an out gay man.

Varner said Thursday he was in the throes of playing the game when he made the revelation, but that he knows that doesn’t excuse what he did.

“I realized I had just crossed a boundary,” he said.

Viewers only saw about 15 minutes of the Tribal Council, but Varner said the actual filming went on for more than two hours. He said he had “a complete and total breakdown” after his statement that was not shown on TV.

Probst, who strongly criticized Varner in the portion that aired, did acknowledge in the unaired part of the Tribal Council that he had known Varner for nearly 20 years and didn’t think he had “a hateful bone in his body,” Varner recalled.

The negative reaction to Varner’s move was so strong that Probst dispensed with the usual secret Tribal Council vote and asked the other cast members whether Varner was their pick to go home. They all agreed.

Smith, 29, hugged Varner as he left. But in an interview with People magazine posted online Wednesday night, Smith was critical of Varner. “I think if he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go,” Smith said.

Varner said that when he was shown calling Smith “deceitful,” he was referring to Smith’s gameplay and not that he had kept a secret about being transgender. But Smith told People he thought Varner intentionally linked deceit with being transgender.

“I think you see this tactic used a lot by politicians to pass these so-called bathroom bills, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s from North Carolina, where the most dangerous of these bathroom bills was passed,” Smith said.

Varner, who is gay, said he strongly opposed and worked against North Carolina’s former House Bill 2, which forbade local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and required people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. Varner also is critical of what he called the “fake repeal” of HB2.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that those bigots in Raleigh don’t erase trans people from our society,” Varner said about North Carolina lawmakers.

Varner, a Greensboro native and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, said he was told he had to remain closeted about his sexuality during his years as a TV journalist, which included stints in North Carolina, New York and Los Angeles. When he left the business in 2014, he became “loud and proud,” he said.

The 10 months that passed between filming in Fiji – what Varner calls “the worst decision of my life” – and the airing of the episode Wednesday night was a grueling, emotional journey, he said. But he noted that’s nothing compared to what he did to Smith, who deserves all the support and sympathy he is receiving.

“If he wants to take swings at me, I’ll hand him the bat,” Varner said.

This season of “Survivor” also included another North Carolinian, Sandra Diaz-Twine of Fayetteville. She has played twice before and won both times. But the third time will not be the charm – she’s already been voted out this season.

Thad Ogburn: 919-829-8987, @thadogburn