In 2005, Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal had a life-changing conversation. Both were working at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles when they realized they had met 26 years earlier, when a group of teen-aged Nazi-punks attacked and beat a gay homeless 14-year-old boy. Matthew Boger was that young boy and Tim Zaal, at age 17, was a member of the group who left Matthew for dead in a West Hollywood alley.
I grew up in a very strict Catholic household just outside San Francisco. I was small for my age and as I got older I started getting bullied at school. When my mother asked me, “Are they picking on you because of your height?” I told her, “No, it’s because I’m gay”. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. “No son of mine will live in my house if they choose to live in sin”, she shouted and then she physically dragged me across the floor and threw me out.
After weeks of being victimized as a 13 year-old on the streets of San Francisco, I tried to return home. But my mother made it instantly clear she didn’t want anything to do with me. ”Fuck you, you little faggot”, she said, and smacked me so hard that I was flung across the floor. That’s when I knew I was completely done with her.
I remember arriving in Los Angeles thinking it would be great but the daily victimizations were the same as at home. I only survived because a voice in my head kept saying, “I’m going to make it and prove her wrong.”
One day a bunch of punk rockers started chasing me. When I saw them coming I literally froze. Then they started punching and kicking me so hard that I fell to the ground. In those last moments I looked up and saw these Mohawks high-fiving and congratulating each other because they believed they’d accomplished their goal by killing a gay kid. In the years that followed, their words and what I saw on their faces, were far more painful than the boots and the blades.
In 1998, another gay kid, Matthew Shepherd, was brutally attacked and died. I didn’t understand why I felt so connected to his story until I realised it was because I had survived that night but this kid had been silenced for ever. It led me to working at the Museum of Tolerance.
Tim and I had known each other for a few months before one day we both realised that Tim was the person who had brutally attacked me that night. At first I felt complete numbness, then this surge of anger as I imagined what I’d like to do to him. That scared me.
Even though I wasn’t comfortable being around Tim or publically sharing a story that I’d denied for 26 years, it seemed the best way to deal with these feelings. At first there was no sense of forgiveness. There had been so much violence that night and such a complete lack of humanity that I didn’t want Tim to get away with it. But as our presentation evolved, so did our relationship, and so too did the process of forgiveness.
But that was a huge undertaking because for all my life I’d feared what others thought of me. The only place I felt truly comfortable was in the heart of the gay community. I had built a cage of fear around myself which I believed was protecting me from further violence not realising that what I was really doing was killing myself. Forgiveness meant unlocking that cage, and becoming completely free to really be myself and not care what others thought of me.
I also experienced a grieving process when I forgave because I had so identified with the events that took place when I was 14 that by letting that part of me go, I mourned the person I’d known for so long. But that’s also a very beautiful thing because what got replaced was a person who was more tolerant, more open hearted and a lot stronger.
In forgiving Tim I also had to consider forgiving my mother. I’ll never understand what motivated her to hurt her own child, and I don’t know what fractured life she came from because she never shared her story with me, but I don’t judge her and I understand that she was raised to believe that homosexuality meant having a deviant personality.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in a very white, Anglo community but I always felt like I was on the outside. After my brother was shot by an African-American, my perception was if a person is black they are willing to attack me.
At my first hard core punk rock show there was anger, fear and violence in the air. It made me feel elated; the adrenalin rush was like a drug. From then on the people I gravitated towards were Nazi punks. We’d get into fights, go on the rampage and create havoc.
On the evening we attacked Matthew there was a heightened level of aggression. We were out to “Kill the faggots”. I noticed that the group I was with had beaten someone to the ground but he was still moving so I went up and said, “What’s wrong with you guys, don’t you know how to put a boot in? “ Then I kicked him hard in the forehead. For years after I thought I’d perhaps killed this person.
Every facet of my life had something to do with the white power movement until I had a child and something shifted. One day I was with my son in a grocery store and he said, “Look daddy, there’s a big black….” (and he used the ‘N’ Word). I realised it didn’t make me feel good or powerful. I was shamed. The violence wasn’t working anymore.
Slowly I removed myself from that lifestyle. I still had a very closed mind-set but then I started to mix with and trust people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. These were people I once would have perceived as enemies who now accepted me for who I was. Their tolerance in a way re-humanized me.
In 2001 I came to the Museum of Tolerance. I was on my journey away from the violent extremist lifestyle and wanted to give something back. By now I’d broken up with my son’s biological mother who was still heavily involved in the skinhead scene. I was also growing spiritually.
At first I didn’t want to stand up with Matthew and tell my story of shame and I attempted to minimize what I’d done by saying, ‘I was a child, 17, drunk, a follower, etc.’ But in the end I knew I had to own my actions by stepping up to the plate and proving to Matthew that I was a different person now. I also wanted to get the toxicity out of me. I was full of self-loathing and knew that holding on to resentment is like a cancer that eats you inside. I came to see that whether or not Matthew accepted my apology wasn’t my business (as long as what I did came from a healed place).
The shame and guilt reoccurs from time to time. After all Matthew is a representative of not just himself but all the other people I’ve hurt. I need to do a lot of inner-self work to live with that – meditation and speaking to my mentor helps, and sometimes so does picking up the phone and talking to Matthew. Sharing our story has been our therapy.