Survivor player Jeff Varner lost a lot more than the show’s $1 million dollar prize when he made the decision to out fellow tribemate Zeke Smith as transgender in an attempt to paint him as “deceitful” on Wednesday’s episode of the CBS reality competition.
His move, which caused outrage and backlash, not only cost the 50-year-old three-time player to be unanimously voted out of the game by his tribemates — but it also cost him his real-life job.
According to News & Record Greensboro, Varner was fired from his job as a real estate agent on Thursday — his now-former employer Allen Tate Realtors saying Varner was “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”
It appears, from social media postings, that Varner had just began working for the company — having only posted his first acting listing with the company on April 7.
Prior to that, the openly gay North Carolina native had worked as news anchor for CBS and Fox affiliates.
This season of Survivor, dubbed “Game Changers” for its 34 outing, had been filmed 10 months ago in the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji — though Varner couldn’t discuss what happened until the episode’s airing.
During that time, he said he’s done a lot of growing.
“I have spent 10 months stewing in this awful, horrible mistake I have made,” Varner told EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) on Thursday. “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.”
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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.”
“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 now.
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.”
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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.”
In an emotional interview with PEOPLE on Thursday, Varner broke down — saying his biggest regret was playing into the “deceitful” stereotypes many have about transgender people.
“One of the things that breaks my heart the most is that that’s one of the stigmas that trans people fight the most,” Varner said. “People think trans people are out there deceiving and they’re predators and they’re hiding in bathrooms and stuff that’s just not true. It’s awful. We’ve got to stop that.”
“We have to stop discriminating and minimizing trans people. They are humans,” he continued, sobbing. “We have to acknowledge that humanity and their dignity and lift up their voices and never reduce them to the disgusting things all these bigots do and all these people who just don’t know and are acting out of fear. ”
Varner said he will “never get over” what he did. “I hurt Zeke,” he said. “My heart is open to him today and if he is reacting in any negative way I give him the space to do that – I deserve that.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (at 8 p.m. ET) on CBS.
Survivor Contestant Who Outed Tribemate Zeke Smith as Transgender Fired From Job – PEOPLE.com