Lowest act in in Survivor history

That was the worst thing anybody has ever done in Survivor.

And let’s not forget there have been some doozies over 34 seasons (lookin’ at you Johnny Fairplay and your ‘dead grandma’).

But these words by Jeff Varner, desperate to avoid being voted out, are reprehensible:

“There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand,” he said.

Turning to fellow castmate he said, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”

As the shock sunk in, he attempted to justify his actions.

“What I’m showing is deception.”

And with that the tribe imploded, unleashing anger at Varner. Even Jeff Probst was appalled at his actions.

“It reveals the ability to deceive,” he desperately offered.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, at what you will do to try and win a million dollars. You’re playing with peoples’ lives,” Ozzy told him, saying what everybody was thinking.

Jeff Varner, who is openly gay himself, should never have outed anybody and should never have linked gender identity to ‘deception.’ And here we were thinking the most hated person in America this week was the CEO of United Airlines.

But the show will also come under fire. Although it showed support for Zeke in an extreme situation, Survivor may have kept vision of a discussion between Varner and Zeke on the cutting room floor. If they did this to respect Zeke’s privacy it’s understandable, but if they did it to create a bombshell moment then they are almost as guilty as Varner. Identity and orientation should never be a Reality TV twist (in the past we’ve seen entire shows do this).

Following the episode airing, Jeff Varner has attempted to apologise:

Zeke has also written a column in the Hollywood Reporter. Here is an excerpt:

I knew that Varner’s actions, though targeted at me, had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. His terrible utterances were not an effect of my actions, but a reflection of his own personal maladies.

But in calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. In proclaiming “Zeke is not the guy you think he is” and that “there is deception on levels y’all don’t understand,” Varner is saying that I’m not really a man and that simply living as my authentic self is a nefarious trick. In reality, by being Zeke the dude, I am being my most honest self — as is every other transgender person going about their daily lives.

I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes. Thankfully, my tribemates rebuffed his hateful tactics. After 18 days starving and competing with me, they knew exactly the man I am, and after that Tribal Council, we all knew exactly the man Varner is.

I looked to Varner, now the one hunched and quivering, and contemplated the backlash he would face. When he said what he said, he changed both of our lives forever. When he pulled me in for a hug, I felt compelled to reciprocate, both as a sign that I was willing to forgive him and that the shots he had fired missed.

But, if we’re being perfectly honest with one another, I’ve struggled with that forgiveness in the months following. I can’t foresee us sipping martinis together in Fire Island. While I can reconcile the personal slight of him outing me, I continue to be troubled by his willingness to deploy such a dangerous stereotype on a global platform.

But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.


  1. There may have been one missed story point. Might have been the moment of realisation for Varner:

    Hollywood Reporter: He claimed one moment didn’t make it to final air — that Smith said to him, “There is no deception, I’m not deceiving anybody,” which Varner says prompted him to followup by outing him as transgender — and that CBS paid for therapy for both Varner and Smith afterwards.

    • That may well be true, but Varner did still specifically say “It shows you are capable of deception”. There would have been so much to edit from, I’m satisfied we got a decent enough version of what happened. Though with reports of Varner allegedly suffering real depression afterwards, I do fear for his personal mental wellbeing. Zeke was always a favourite player throughout the last season and I’ve always thought he’d be an awesome bloke to get to know. This revelation changes none of that. I hope he wins because he is a good guy and does play the game well.

  2. mateo_mathieu

    Did he think the tribe was going to turn around and vote out Zeke for his “ability to deceive”? Wow, that was such a cheap shot. Zeke handled it like an absolute champion and he summed it up perfectly when he said he didn’t want to be the first transgender Survivor player, he wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player. For his sake, I hope something good comes out of it.

  3. Any show on its 34th season would typically be flogging a dead horse but Survivor still delivers far beyond the malignant ‘reality TV’ label. Nobody should be outed the way Varner did to Zeke but full credit to the producers for not once referring to or exploiting the inclusion of a transgender person in his two seasons. So glad Zeke emerged from that awful confrontation with the full love and respect of everyone. But also, forgiveness is powerful. I believe Varner does sincerely regret what he said and whilst Zeke himself has since claimed not to expect mai-tais being shared any time soon, if he can forgive, so should we. There’s lessons in this one episode for all of us about acceptance, respect and keeping one’s trap shut. As The Beloved once breathed, “Just peace, unity, tolerance and love”.

  4. I am a Survivor fan since Season 1Ep 1, and this moment was up there with the most compelling Tribals ever. It transcended Tribal, actually. The reactions of the other tribe members, for example, prove once again, that Survivor is a microcosm of Western society, and this is why the show continues to be a juggernaut.
    Zeke was incredibly composed and gracious, Ozzie spoke for many, and the woman circled the wagons with grace and vehemence in support.
    Such great viewing, I watched it twice.

  5. Survivor: Australian Outback was always my favorite season, so i have a soft spot for Varner and have always liked him.
    After the words left his mouth I do believe he realized what he’d done was wrong, and that his apology was sincere, but it is odd that the thought even occurred to him to say that in the first place.

    He was probably the last person you would have ever expected to say something like that. And it’s sad now that that will forever be his ‘Survivor legacy’ and how he’s remembered. He will have to live with that misjudgment.

    As to how he found out. Varner is very involved in the LGBT community. So perhaps some people in Varners circle had heard rumors about Zeke when he was first on the show and he knew things that way?

    Surely they will dedicate some of the finale to this issue and offer some closure?

    • It was powerful TV.

      Like you, I thought he just had a brain fart. He was in the heat of battle and was looking around for anything that would get his through that night. He latched onto Zeke, but realised his mistake the moment the others spoke up. So I would agree with his statement that it was intentional malice, but still nevertheless wrong.

      It would have been even better if at that point Varner just got up and said – yes I was wrong, I sincerely apologise and I need to leave. The Tribe has spoken!

  6. I know it’s non-ratings period, but just as an aside, did 9 do anything to promote this “lowest act in Survivor history”? Or do we only get that for exaggerated MAFS/Voice/Block ads?

    I shouldn’t complain. At least they haven’t Gotham’d Survivor.

  7. jezza the first original one

    Its been a great season of Survivor so far. If Sean Spicer ever quits as the President press officer, Varner would be an ideal ready made replacement. I thought the tribal council dragged on and it felt exploitative of the situation. Varner’s moral compass failed him, as if his act of outing was ever gonna win him votes….total failure. I wonder where the next ‘low’ will take us…..

  8. I am a Survivor fan since Season 1, and this is the first time I cried at a Tribal Council viewing, ever. And as Zeke said in the Column – it is Varner who will be ‘in hiding’ and Zeke ‘strong and proud’.

  9. But surely Jeff Probst must have got permission from Zeke to show it. What a shocking thing Varner did. I thought he wanted Ozzy to go so why try to discredit Zeke anyway?

  10. Hey David, an article from TvGuide shows Jeff saying there was never a scene or moment that Zeke came out to him

    When Zeke came out to you, did he mention that this was something he had kept a secret from the others?
    Varner: He did not come out to me. He didn’t come out to me. I put two and two and three and four together and when I asked him in Tribal, “Why haven’t you told people?” I was not 100 percent sure he was [trans]. So that was a thoughtless, emotional moment for me that should not have happened.

  11. That essay that Zeke wrote in Hollywood Reporter is fantastic and a real behind the scenes look into his journey and transformation in who he is as a person. I’m glad you linked to it! I encourage others to read that link

  12. What Varner did was wrong. However, the show was right to keep this in. Survivor, at its core is about how these people interact with each other, knowing that every few days they have to vote someone off, until one remains. This was probabily one of the most real moments of the show, across any version of Survivor, ever. It was compelling TV. Also given the nature of the Tribal Council (the tribe didn’t even cast an offical vote, they just agreed that Jeff should go) I don’t think they was a way to really edit it out without it looking really odd and even if they did, the info that Zeke was trans womb would likely come out in the tabloids which would be worse for him – he wouldn’t get to speak for himself and would still be outed as he did at Tribal, rather well I might add).

    Aditionally, I like that they kept the moment as it likely became a teaching moment for those who are…

    • Not suggesting they edit it out. I’m questioning whether they should have shown the initial conversation where being transgender was discussed, or the moment of realisation by Varner. If it’s Reality were we denied a real moment in order to load a dramatic bombshell? It’s hard to know without all the facts but I think it’s a question they will need to address.

      • Let’s just pretend for a moment permission was not given by Zeke or Varner to air the outing. The producers would have been forced to either violate the request and air it anyways or fabricated a new narrative to explain Varner exiting the tribe at that juncture. Either way, the show would have lost all credibility. As it has played out, I believe the show has retained its’ dignity. I only hope that is maintained throughout the finale. I wouldn’t like to be involved in making the decision how to handle it at the live reunion show, though.

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