Jeff Varner says Zeke Smith was the one to start the "healing" process after his big Survivor reveal.
During an appearance on Survivor: Beyond the Buff, the official Survivor after-show, on Thursday, Varner apologized for outing Smith as transgender during Wednesday's tribal council -- but said Smith reached out to him months after filming took place to talk about the situation.
"Zeke and I have spoken several times, actually. He reached out to me [and] I've gotten back to him. We got back [from Fiji] in July. Our first conversation was in October on the phone, that he initiated, and which I appreciate very much. And it was in that conversation that I realized that healing could begin for me, because I just needed to hear his voice, I needed to know that he was safe, and that he was OK, and that he forgave me," Varner explained.
"His forgiveness that night was genuine. But, you know, Zeke and I had conversations about, as members of LGBTQ community, we are both victims, in a way, of this situation, and we bonded, and we had, I thought, really great conversations," he continued. "I understand today that he's in a different place, and maybe even arguing that I'm a bigot, and full of hate, and that it was hate that was at play at tribal council last night, and he couldn't be more wrong."
Viewers were shocked to find out on Wednesday that Smith was transgender -- and that Varner was the one to out him. "There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don't even understand," Varner said on the episode, looking at Smith. "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?"
The three-time player's last plea to save himself from elimination understandably backfired, as his tribemates quickly chastised him for the reveal. After minutes of defending himself -- claiming that he thought Smith was "out and loud and proud" to the whole world, Varner realized what he had done, and apologized to Smith, who accepted with a hug.
"I give Zeke every inch of room to react how he has to react. I caused this, and I deserve it," Varner said on Facebook, after Smith wrote an essay on The Hollywood Reporter about his struggle to truly forgive Varner for his actions. "It's just important for me to say a lot today, but mostly that I love Zeke. I respect him greatly. I love transgender people. They're all in my life. I will fight daily to help their experience in this world, and I'm just so sorry this happened."
During a Skype interview with ET on Thursday, Varner said watching the episode back was "emotional."
"I was prepared for last night, and I've worked through where I was going to be psychologically and emotionally before I even sat down to watch it. I knew that it would be emotional. I cried a lot. I sat numb a lot. There was relief that this is finally out there," he said.
"That night was a nightmare, and having to sit and ponder it for 10 months has been the worst part of it all, and watching it was even more so, but not for me, for Zeke," he continued. "I just couldn't take my eyes off Zeke, and just seeing his face and where he was, and how he felt...When it was over, it was just a big, deep breath. Because now, the healing can begin. Now we can move forward, both of us, and we will make it through this."
Survivor: Beyond the Buff, the official Survivor after-show, airs Thursdays at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT on the Survivor Facebook page.
See more from ET's interview in the video below.