Greensboro’s Jeff Varner had his back up against the wall on Wednesday night’s episode of “Survivor.” It seemed imminent that he’d be voted off the island in Fiji.
But – as routinely happens on the long-running CBS reality show – he threw a last-ditch Hail Mary to try to save his own skin.
“There is deception here,” he told host Jeff Probst, as Varner’s six fellow tribemates squirmed. “Deception on levels that these guys don’t even understand.” Then Varner glared directly at one of them, openly gay New York asset manager Zeke Smith, and said: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
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Within seconds, Varner was harshly criticized by the other cast members and Probst (then was eliminated via a unanimous vote done in the open, as opposed to in secret, which is standard). Within minutes, Twitter exploded. Within hours, it became a national controversy, with GLAAD issuing a rebuke.
And on Thursday night, hours after our own interview with Varner, the Greensboro News & Record reported that he had been fired from his job as a real estate agent. He said he was told that he is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”
It was clear to anyone watching Wednesday night’s episode that the 50-year-old former TV journalist, himself a gay man, a) had seriously over-stepped ethical boundaries and b) almost immediately wished he could take his words back. Like Probst said during the broadcast, though, “You can’t unring the bell.”
As for why he said it in the first place? Why he really said it? Well, Varner has had several months to think about it; the current season was shot last July on an island in Fiji. And his answer is...
“I’m still working to figure that out, quite frankly,” the three-time “Survivor” veteran told the Observer during a phone call Thursday afternoon. “I really don’t know how to answer that without sounding like I’m making an excuse, or defending myself, and there is no defense or excuse for what I did. It’s a horrible thing, and nobody should ever out another human being in any way, shape, or form.
“It marginalizes them, it stigmatizes them, it shames them, pushes them back into the closet, forces them to not be who they are, and that is the opposite of what should be happening here – that’s a horrible place for a person to live. So, the why? I just can’t say. It just organically came out of me. You know, we’re starving, we’re sleepy... we’re not rational humans. We’re in this manufactured environment, blocked off from the world, and when you’re out there for three weeks, the world begins to disappear, and the only people in your existence are these people.”
Here are the other burning questions we had for Varner, and his answers:
1. When did Smith reveal to Varner that he was trans? (Smith, 28, is a returning “Survivor” contestant who also appeared in last fall’s installment. Though he’d talked about being gay, it was never mentioned or alluded to that he was transgender.)
“He didn’t directly come out to me. There were indirect clues over the course of the three-week period we were there. ... I have transgender people in my life who I adore and who love me, and out of respect for Zeke and transgender people, I don’t really want to go into a whole lot of detail of how I knew. But no, he didn’t, and when those words came out of my mouth, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I was right.”
2. What else didn’t we see on Wednesday night’s episode?
“That tribal council lasted in reality two hours, and there was a five-hour period before we went there where lots of discussions were being had. So there is a lot that fed into that and a lot of context missing. I’m not saying that the editing is misleading – it’s not. I think CBS did a beautiful job, especially in portraying the transgender fight and the challenges. I really do, even though it’s at my expense.” Also: “I had a whole emotional breakdown that did not make the air. That lasted days and weeks and months after the case.”
3. What kind of terms are Varner and Smith on now? Have they spoken since that night?
“I finally got to speak to Zeke in October. I realized his forgiveness is genuine, and it was in that moment that I could begin to heal. I felt like I had a team member in him. We’ve been in contact for months, and it all felt great. ... The last communication I had to him was (before the show aired). I said, ‘Here we go,’ and ‘Just know that I love you and I’m here, and I’m sorry – profoundly sorry – again. Reach out to me when you want.’ ... I think seeing the show has put him in a different place. ... I’m hearing that he’s dropping the word ‘hate’ and ‘bigot’ in regard to me today, which is heartbreaking because that’s so far removed from who I am. Zeke spent five days in this manufactured environment with me. If you add all the minutes we actually had conversations together, it’s probably no more than five hours. He doesn’t know who I am. He knows nothing about me on that level. But if throwing me under the bus helps make a point that changes someone else’s life, I’ll gladly lay down for him.”
4. In defending himself after outing Smith, Varner said: “I argue for the rights of transgender people every day in the state of North Carolina.” How exactly has he done that?
“HB2 was in effect (before I went to Fiji). ... I’ve been on the steps of the capitol with the signs, and I’m very much involved in the lives of my trans friends. I am on the board of the Adam Foundation in Forsyth County, which does this, that and everything for the LGBTQ community; we support AIDS meals and AIDS care and all of that.”
5. What’s next for Varner?
“I want to be part of that effort to lift LGBTQ voices and help effect sincere change. It needs to happen, especially in North Carolina and other states that are putting forth these awful, awful pieces of legislation. ... I mean, I wish like hell I could have had my hands on (Governor) Roy Cooper. This “fake repeal” (of HB2)? Yeah, they took away the whole birth certificate situation. But local communities can’t enact the laws that protect us, and they can’t do it till 2020, which is a sign that (Republican legislative leaders Phil) Berger and (Tim) Moore are saying, ‘We’re gonna get a Republican governor then, and then we’re gonna put it back into place.’ It’s so fake. I just hope all of the people out there fighting to call that what it is get louder and louder, and I want to join them.” As for a fourth run at “Survivor”? “Not anytime soon.”