Unlikely Allies in Battle on Hate

Times Staff Writer

Theirs is an unlikely friendship.

Timothy Zaal is a former neo-Nazi skinhead who served time behind bars on hate crime charges for assaulting an Iranian couple.

Matthew Boger is a gay man Zaal once beat unconscious on a street corner in Hollywood.

More than two decades later, Zaal, 42, and Boger, 39, were brought together by their work at the Museum of Tolerance to fight hatred.

After their initial shock, the two men have become friends, even turning to each other for advice and consolation. On Sunday, they sat next to each other on a museum stage and shared their story of reconciliation.

Zaal, a stocky man with a goatee and tattoos, turned to Boger during the program and apologized for what he had done when they were teenagers.

Boger, a much smaller man in a blazer and jeans, smiled awkwardly and responded, "But you are a good guy -- now."

That night in 1981, Boger was hanging out with a few friends at a hamburger stand when a group of skinheads ran toward them shouting obscenities. He remembers trying to flee to an alley, where Boger said he was trampled, punched and kicked.

"I came to, and all I saw was blood," Boger said.

Raised in a conservative suburb of the Bay Area, Boger said his mother kicked him out of the house after he told her he was gay.

He jumped onto a bus to Los Angeles. After the attack, Boger decided not to call the police or go to the hospital because he was homeless and a teenage runaway and feared he would be sent to juvenile hall if his parents refused to come get him.

"I healed eventually, over time, physically," Boger said of the assault. "But emotionally and in every other way, it took much longer.

Boger eventually went to trade school and became a hair colorist, but said he still struggled with his own prejudices against anyone who wasn't gay. To deal with those feelings, Boger said, he began volunteering as a docent at the museum two years ago. He was later hired as the floor manager, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the museum.

For his part, Zaal grew up in a "wholesome" suburban neighborhood in the San Gabriel Valley and said he learned racism early in life from his parents. Then his brother was shot and wounded by an African American and Zaal became a leader in the neo-Nazi movement.

"I breathed, I ate, slept, drank white power," he said.

Zaal remembers beating up Boger and his friends, describing it as "very, very brutal." He felt a rush that night, like he often did when he and his friends got into fights.

"Violent confrontations made me feel good about myself," he said.

In 1990, he was sentenced to time in Los Angeles County jail for his involvement in the attack on the Iranian couple, whom he mistakenly believed to be Jewish.

The former skinhead said his transformation began after he had a son.

One day, Zaal said, he was at a grocery store when his son called a black man "the n-word" and several customers looked at him with disgust.

Zaal said that was one of the moments that led him to realize that he was "poisoning" his child, not teaching him. Over time, he began separating himself from his neo-Nazi friends and beliefs.

After his relationship with his son's mother ended, Zaal married a Jewish woman.

"I'm not proud of a lot of the things I have done," Zaal said. "I lived a very nasty, vile, mean lifestyle for many, many years."

About four years ago, Zaal began speaking about his past at the museum, often to students.

Even though Zaal and Boger were both at the museum regularly, their paths did not cross until May 2005.

Boger was preparing to meet with a group of Simi Valley students whom teachers believed -- mistakenly as it turns out -- wanted to start a white-power group on campus.

Unsure how to deal with the students, Boger approached a fellow docent, who suggested he seek advice from a colleague who had experience with such groups: Zaal.

Still having no idea that their pasts were connected, the men met for coffee and began discussing what brought them to the museum.

Their conversation soon turned to the hamburger stand where both spent time as teenagers. Within minutes, they recognized one another.

"Looking in his eyes was how I recognized him," Boger said. "The eyes were what I remembered from that night."

Boger peppered Zaal with questions about that night -- details to confirm that he was the one who left him bruised and bloodied. Once he knew for sure, Boger said, "You realize who I am, right?"

"Yeah, I realized five minutes ago," Zaal said, immediately feeling remorseful.

They sat for a few minutes, unsure of what to say next. The conversation ended and the two men didn't speak for a few weeks.

Zaal said he thought Boger wouldn't want anything to do with him.

But then, Boger said, he realized the only way to move forward would be to begin forgiving Zaal.

They had lunch and started to get to know one another. Then, Boger joked, he decided to put Zaal to the test by inviting him to a barbecue at his home with 60 other gay men.

Zaal went and had a good time.

"That's when it really began to become a solid, rewarding friendship," Boger said.

The men first told their story at the museum in January and have spoken four more times since.

Both said they still feel uncomfortable facing their past, but they know how important it is to do so, even if, as Boger said, they do look like "the odd couple."

"We did not get here overnight," Zaal said. "It was many, many years of pain, and anguish, and growth."

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