When Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender on the April 6 episode of Survivor, Smith’s tribemates - and fans - instantly rallied around the 29-year-old. But now one former cast mate says Varner has paid enough for his actions.
“I’m a little upset how little understanding Jeff is getting,” Hali Ford tells PEOPLE of Varner, who lost his job after the outing aired on TV. “Everyone makes mistakes - and that was a big mistake - but Jeff is an incredible person. Martin Luther King Jr. said, Hate cannot drive out hate - only love can do that.’ I just feel like, in light of Jeff’s circle of hate, we’re just hating on him so hard and I just wish we wouldn’t do that.”
Still, Ford (who was voted out on Wednesday night’s episode of the CBS reality competition) sympathizes with Smith and says the moment he opened up to her about his gender history was “stirring.”
“This is the core of Zeke’s struggle and personal narrative for the past decade or more and to have him outed like that was just devastating,” she said. “You could just feel his experience even when he was putting on this strong face.”
“But what’s so powerful are Sarah’s confessionals around the issue,” Ford says of Sarah Lacina, who has said her conservative views have been forever changed by knowing Smith. “I think a lot of the Survivor viewers are from that more conservative background and just to see her have this experience of embracing a person before judging by a label - I thought that was really powerful.”
Contestant Ozzy Lusth, who was also voted out Wednesday, was with Lacina during the emotional tribal council where Varner outed Smith.
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“Seeing it in person was shocking and we all knew it was going to have major consequences - but not to the extent that there have been,” he tells PEOPLE. “I think that Varner is reeling and he’s really having to come to terms with what his desire to win the game led him to actually do to another person.”
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us as human beings watching a television show to look at the way that we treat transgender people and really reflect on the fact that we are all people and we all deserve equal rights,” he continues. “This shows that all people should be treated equally and we shouldn’t make these people hide in the shadows any longer.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (at 8 p.m. ET) on CBS.