Zeke Smith has spent eight months figuring out how to forgive Jeff Varner for outing him as transgender on Wednesday’s shocking and emotional episode of Survivor.
“It’s tough with Varner,” says Smith, who was interviewed exclusively for the current issue of PEOPLE. “I don’t think he hates trans people. I just think he has a lot of misconceptions about trans people. I think if he wants to be an ally to trans people, he has a long way to go.”
Varner, 50, outed Smith, 29, during a tribal council in attempts to paint the Brooklyn-based asset manager as “deceitful” and therefore worthy of being voted out.
“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,” says Smith.
“I think the hardest part is that if he was just some ignorant bigot, you could just write him off, but he’s not,” Smith says of Varner, who is gay. “He knows better. I think because he’s gay, people give his words a little more weight and I don’t know if he believes what he said — but he definitely hoped others would.”
But Smith is extremely pleased that his tribemates quickly admonished Varner for his actions.
“Trans people are a highly vulnerable population. We make easy targets. We’re attacked a lot and I expected a lot more from Varner,” says Smith. “But I think it’s so great that you see his hateful tactics rebuffed with such amazing love and from such a diverse group that responds to him.”
- For more from Smith — including how his depression during and after his transition inspired him to audition for Survivor — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
After being ousted by his tribe on Wednesday’s episode, Varner approaches Smith and pulls him in for a hug. After viewing the footage, Smith admits it was a hard moment to watch.
“It was hard to see me hug him that night and tell him that it was going to be okay,” says Smith. “But it was important for me to show that he had not cowed me; that whatever shots he meant to take at me, he missed; that I was the stronger man and he was the one weeping.”
In the months since that tribal council, Smith says he’s spent a lot of time processing how he feels about Varner.
RELATED VIDEO: PENs Survivor Fan Forum Reacts to Zeke Being Outed as Transgender
“In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do was accept his apology and say that we’d find a way to work it out, but I don’t really – I really struggle with forgiving him every day,” says Smith. “I’ve had to think a lot about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened. It’s not excusing what happened. I don’t even think forgiveness means I have to be his friend — and I don’t think I ever will be his friend.”
“But I think forgiveness is about hope – hope that he understands why what he did was wrong, hope that he doesn’t ever do something like this again and hope that whatever compelled him to give into his worst instincts in a dark moment is resolved for him,” he continues. “I do wish him the best, I just think I wish him the best from afar.”