Jeff Varner knows he crossed the line on Wednesday’s Survivor when, in an effort to save himself from elimination, he outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender — insinuating Smith’s reluctance to share his most personal information made him deceitful.
It was a shocking and distasteful moment that immediately backfired on the 50-year-old former news anchor. Tears coming out of his eyes, he buried his head in his hands and quickly apologized for what he said — but his words wouldn’t be forgotten. Not only was Varner unanimously voted out of the game by his tribemates, but everyone from host Jeff Probst to viewers watching at home have since chastised Varner for his targeted attack.
But no one has beaten up Varner more than Varner himself.
On Thursday morning, he called into EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) to discuss the episode — and admitted that he’s been in therapy since filming it.
“I have spent 10 months stewing in this awful, horrible mistake I have made,” Varner said. “I have been through, I don’t know how much therapy. With the show’s therapist, with a local therapist. I have met with and spoken to several LGBT organizations — I’ve joined the board of a couple of them…. this has changed me drastically.”
As tough as it’s been for him, Varner recognizes that Smith, 29, is the real victim here.
“This is about Zeke,” Varner said. “I can only profusely apologize. I have apologized to him — we’ve spoken several times on the phone. He continually forgives me. I am amazed and moved at his ability to do that. I know that forgiveness is difficult. I know that he has a lot of people in his ear. I know that watching this last night was traumatic not only for me and my family — I can only imagine what this was like for him and his friends and everybody who loves him.”
“I hurt him,” Varner continued. “When we were in pain and we are in fair, we are dangerous people. We say things we don’t mean. And he’s calling me a bigot and full of hate and all kinds of stuff. I forgive him for that. I give him every inch of every room to feel and experience what he’s feeling. If he wants to take swings at me, I’m the one to hand him the bat. I deserve it. I deserve every bit of it. No one is going to beat me up worse than I have myself.”
Elsewhere in Varner’s chat, he explained that his decision to out Smith had come out of the blue — and that the word “deception” he used actually originally had to do with a secret alliance between Smith, Ozzy Lusth, and Andrea Boehlke.
“It’s unfortunate that you can’t see the entire tribal. I wish they put that as a secret scene or something,” Varner said. “When I was talking about the deception of the secret alliance and trying to sway everybody else, there was a moment where Zeke looked at me — this was edited out of the show — and he said ‘There is no deception, I’m not deceiving anybody.’ And when he said that, my question just came out of my mouth to him.
RELATED VIDEO: Survivor‘s Zeke Smith on Jeff Varner Outing Him as Transgender on TV: ‘I Really Struggle With Forgiving Him
“I think he hoped others would believe that trans people are dangerous and fraudulent,” he said. “That reasoning is infinitely worse than him outing me because it’s the same one used to discriminate against, attack and murder trans people. What’s great is that nobody bought it.”
“It’s important people see he lost that fight,” he added. “The message should be clear that hate will always lose.”
- To see Smith in the pages of PEOPLE, pick up the latest issue of the magazine, on newsstands Friday
He also explained to PEOPLE that he did not want to be the “first transgender Survivor contestant.”
“I’m not ashamed of being trans, but I didn’t want that to be my story,” Smith said. “I just wanted to go out on an adventure and play a great game. I just wanted to be known for my game.”
Varner took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue a lengthy apology.
“I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended,” he wrote. “I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew. I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life.”
“Let me be clear, outing someone is assault,” Varner said. “It robs a strong, courageous person of their power and protection and opens them up to discrimination and danger. It can leave scars that haunt for a lifetime. I am profoundly sorry. Zeke is a wonderful man and I will forever be amazed and inspired by his forgiveness and compassion. I thank God for that and the gift of being an example as to why you should never do what I did.”
RELATED VIDEO: PENs Survivor Fan Forum Reacts to Zeke Being Outed as Transgender
- Watch PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.
He told EW that though he’s in the wrong, his Survivor family has supported him behind the scenes.
“This show’s been part of my life for so long. Once a survivor, always a survivor,” Varner said. “This is my family. Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst and casting and everybody — they’re not saying it publicly, and I understand why they’re not, but I’ve heard from all of them. And they have nothing but love and support for,eand I’m grateful for that.”
“They’ve got two kids who are in the middle of this and they need to choose one or the other,” he added. “And they’re doing the best they can to support us both. I’m just grateful for them. I’m grateful for everybody whose helped me and helped Zeke in this situation.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.