Gay and third-born into a devoutly Catholic family of seven children, it took no small amount of courage for Matthew Boger to come out to his mother. Minutes after he did she kicked him out. He took with him no money, only a hastily packed bag of clothes.
After four months on the streets of San Francisco, Boger, wanting to get farther away from his family, took a one-way bus trip to LA.
The year was 1980. One evening 14-year-old Boger was hanging out with friends at a hamburger stand in West Hollywood. The gathering was a de facto support group for street youth who lived in parks, ate out of trashcans, bathed in public washrooms, panhandled and did whatever they needed to survive.
“I was doing things in that period no 14-year-old should be doing,” he says.
Boger recounts how he and his friends were attacked that night by a group of neo-Nazis.
“I heard, ‘We’re going to kill the faggots.’ When they ran up the streets there seemed be 100 of them, though there were really only 14. I got up to run and they caught up to me in an alley. They started punching and kicking me until I was unconscious. I don’t know how long but I came to sometime later to find no broken bones, just a lot of severe injuries. They had razor blades glued to their boots so there were a lot of cuts and bruises.”
Today Boger works as manager of operations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in LA. He was in Toronto on Nov 6 speaking at Adath Israel Synagogue as part of Holocaust Education Week.
But he was not speaking alone. He was with his friend, Tim Zaal, the former LA director of operations, recruitment and propaganda for the White Aryan Resistance, the man whose kicks left him unconscious that awful night nearly 30 years ago.
Zaal, who left the neo-Nazi movement 14 years ago, works as a consultant with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Taskforce Against Hate and Terrorism. His insider knowledge of the white supremacist movement makes him an important asset to the Wiesenthal Center. He remembers the night he attacked Boger.
“As we got out of our vehicle somebody said, ‘Let’s kill the faggots.’ It was like a battle cry and we started to chase [Boger and his friends]…. Matthew was being beaten and kicked but in my mind they weren’t being efficient. I shouted, ‘This is how you do it properly,’ and right around that time Matthew looked up and I kicked him in the head and he was out.”
Seven years after Zaal kicked Boger unconscious he earned a one-year jail sentence for attacking an Iranian couple. In prison Zaal joined a white supremacist gang. After his release he worked in various capacities with organized, violent racist groups. Gradually he became disgruntled with the neo-Nazi movement, at first for reasons other than ideology. He worried that the neo-Nazis had no plan in place to aid his wife and son if he were killed.
“I was an expendable soldier to them,” he says.
Then slowly, over as many as four years, Zaal grew to question the neo-Nazi ideology of hate. He decided to change his life but leaving was complicated. He learned of another neo-Nazi, for example, who was kidnapped and nailed to a tree for trying to go his own way.
Eventually Zaal left his former wife, who today is in jail for committing a hate crime, and married a Jewish Texan. In time he found the job at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is how he crossed paths again with Boger. The two were talking about LA and trading notes on their experiences. It wasn’t long before they realized they had met before. After several agonizing moments Zaal apologized but initially it wasn’t enough for Boger.
“First I had to understand what forgiveness is,” says Boger. “Forgiveness is healing from the incident and regaining your power. When my mother did what she did and Tim did what he did, they both took away something that was very important: my power and self-esteem. In order to gain that back, so they could no longer hold that power over me, I had to forgive. The process for me was to write out everything that happened and all my feelings surrounding it. I did not call Tim. I did not sit down and talk this out. I simply did it on my own.”
Today Boger and Zaal travel North America telling the same story from two perspectives to children, adults, gay people, straight people and people of all faiths.
They have worked with each other for four years. Their presentation is a dialogue with the audience. They show a short film recounting the day Zaal nearly killed Boger, say a few words and leave it to the audience to decide which direction the conversation should take. It used to be more one-sided, a lecture. That changed.
“Dialogue is the main thing,” says Zaal, “because that’s how people engage with one another.”
“When you tell people how to feel they shut you out whereas if you have a calm dialogue about multiple issues they’re more apt to open up,” says Boger. “I am not the poster child for gay rights. I am interested in talking about intolerance toward anyone who has been victimized for religious beliefs, sexual orientation or racial differences. Any of those things can be covered within this presentation, and then they realize it’s a far larger subject than just this little nugget.”