When Chris Zander shared the news on Dec. 10 via Facebook that his husband—local LGBT activist and local Equality California field director George Zander—had passed away, many people in the community reacted with shock.
George and Chris Zander had been attacked on Nov. 1 near Calle Encilia and Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs after leaving Hunters Nightclub. Two suspects, Keith Terranova and Christopher Carr, have since been arrested; both have pleaded not guilty to crimes including battery with serious injury, elder abuse and hate crime. The Palm Springs Police Department said Carr has nine previous arrests, and both Carr and Terranova have previously been convicted of battery.
Chris Zander, 33, required stitches after being struck in the back of the head with a tire iron, while George Zander, 71, suffered a double-fracture to his hip, which required surgery.
George had gotten through the surgery and was back home after spending some time in a rehab center. Friends reported that George was recovering and in good spirits—which is why Chris’ announcement on Dec. 10 was so shocking.
That morning, George was rushed to Desert Regional Medical Center and passed away at 7:50 a.m., police said. The cause of death has not been publicly released as of our press deadline.
Prosecutors have not yet said whether Terranova and Carr will be charged with murder.
During a recent phone interview, Equality California executive director Rick Zbur talked about all that Zander did in the desert.
“He was our primary staff person in the desert areas and Inland Empire, and he started working with us in 2009,” Zbur said. “George was an amazing person, and it’s a huge loss for our organization, the LGBT community and the broader communities in the desert area.
“He spent his time working with us and focusing on schools and making sure the needs of seniors were met. He was our primary person in the desert areas enrolling people in health care, and, of course, George was a bit of a political junkie and understood the importance of making sure pro-LGBT elected officials were elected. He was very much our person on the ground and a key part of our political program as well.”
Zbur said that while Zander was a great activist, he was also was a person who cared deeply for others.
“I can’t tell you how many of our volunteers in the desert communities are so saddened by his passing. He mentored individuals, and people loved him. He was a kind and generous soul. He used his work to try to mentor LGBT individuals and young adults as they were coming up, and help them understand the importance of organizing and how you do it. He really took people under his wing and became a big part of their lives.”
Zbur said the fact that such a hate crime could happen in a “gay Mecca” like Palm Springs illustrated an unfortunate reality.
“We know that hate crimes are still commonplace throughout California and throughout the nation,” he said. “I think there’s been sort of a recent understanding of the violence that transgender people are now facing throughout the country. We had 22 transgender people lose their lives in the past year. But this is also a wake-up call that we have a lot of work to do in advancing acceptance and understanding of the entire LGBT community.
“We have pockets of misunderstanding and apathy toward our community, and that’s why we’re very focused on the new part of our mission, which is increasing acceptance for LGBT people. George was a very key part of that process for us. Within our community, after the huge success we achieved with marriage equality, people have asked, ‘Is the fight over?’ I think this shows that we have a lot of work to do.”
Paulina Angel, a local musician and transgender activist, was a close friend of George Zander. During an interview at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, she talked about how she met George.
“About 10 years ago, I was part of Gay Associated Youth, and they invited me for a fundraiser brunch in Palm Springs, and at that event is where I met George,” Angel said. “I was still this shy person, and I didn’t know what to expect. I first came out as gay before I came out as transgender, so he knew me when I was this person named Paul Angel. He loved talking to people and working with people. He made sure that your rights were taken care of.
“The great thing about him was that he was always working on something. Whether it was rights for the LGBT community, or for people who needed health care, he cared. He cared about people in the middle class, and people in the Hispanic community—he really loved working on Hispanic-related issues. He was a very dedicated organizer. He loved organizing things for people and making sure their messages were heard. That’s one of the great things about George.”
Angel noted that George was dedicated to anything he took on, which made him enjoyable to work with, no matter the issue.
“He was always hard at work. He’d be up until 3 in the morning working on something,” Angel said. “He loved to work, and he would never rest until something was done. That’s the thing I loved about him and what we had in common—we both loved working on things all the way into the night. Even when people around us were asleep, we loved working.”
After the November attack, Angel stayed with Chris at the Zanders’ home and helped him through the difficult time.
“It was especially hard on Chris. I remember when he came back to their place after he got out of the hospital,” Angel said. “Once he saw me, he ran up to me and just hugged me and was crying; I was a little-teary eyed, too. He was so shaken up by what happened and was very nervous. He was always thinking about George and just wanted to go back and be by his bedside. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, and I helped him out with facilitating anything that came along.
“When I saw George (after the attack), he had the biggest smile. Even when something knocked him down, he always put a smile on his face. He was like, ‘Hey, these people did this to me, but they haven’t taken away my smile.’”
She last saw George on Nov. 17—the day of her first musical performance in many years, at the benefit show for George and Chris Zander organized by the Independent at Chill Bar in Palm Springs.
“I saw him before the show,” she said. “I went and visited him, and we were just making each other smile and laugh. He asked me, ‘Are you going to play me a song?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play you a song.’ But I wasn’t able to, because he had to go and have X-rays. We spent 20 minutes talking about the event and what was going on. I remember he told me, ‘I’m a little bit in pain, and you might hear me say a curse word or two.’ I joked with him: ‘George Zander say a curse word? Never!’”
Angel said she plans to keep working as an activist.
“For me, I talk to my grandmother a lot, and we talked about this. She asked me, ‘I’m concerned about you, because you live there, and you’re at a lot of those events. Aren’t you afraid of someone attacking you?’” Angel said. “My belief is if it happens, it happens. I’m not going to live my life under the sheets thinking I can’t go out because someone is going to beat me up. I’m going to live my life, and if it happens, it happens, but I’m not going to let it stop me from doing what I need to do. Especially as an activist myself, I’m not going to let it scare me away from the work that I’ve been working on—and what George worked on.”
Ray Chance, a friend of George and Chris Zander, started a GoFundMe campaign to get a star for George Zander on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. In just seven days, he raised $11,000, with a boost from local activist and philanthropist Harold Matzner. Chance is now going through the process to get the star approved.
“It was kind of a gut emotional reaction to do something to memorialize George,” Chance said. “After he died, I thought, ‘That’s not the end of it! It’s not going to end here!’ George was a star in his own right. He was a star in Palm Springs. He brought light everywhere he went, and he was always on the street on Thursday nights at the VillageFest. In Palm Springs, there can be no better legacy for George. When I talked to Chris about it, after we got through the tears again, Chris said, ‘George would be tickled pink to have a star on the sidewalk!’ I was like, ‘Thank you, Chris! That’s all I needed to hear!’
Chance said some people have questioned whether it’s appropriate for such an effort to be dedicated to getting George a star, but he plans on seeing this to completion.
“I’ve received some less-than-supportive comments about doing this, and questions like, ‘Why don’t you donate to a foundation?’ or this or that. Everyone needs to choose his or her own way to honor,” Chance said.
Chance was a friend of George Zander for 12 years.
“I met him after I moved to the desert. George had a huge public personality, and in the 12 years I knew him, he became an incredibly devoted, dear and loved person,” Chance said. “We would set aside a day in April where we would have our own Thanksgiving so all of our chosen family could get together.”
Since starting the GoFundMe effort, Chance has heard from many of George Zander’s friends from Seattle, where Zander lived before moving to Palm Springs.
“He had a huge impact there,” Chance said. “Based on the number of people who have donated and made comments from Seattle—including friends he had up there who are on the Seattle City Council issuing a letter of condolence to Chris Zander—he was big in Seattle before he came down here. And God bless him for coming down here, because with George, there was no artifice about his dedication to equality, tribal equality or transgender equality. He was for equality for all.”
On the day of Zander’s death, I reached out to prominent LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist Cleve Jones.
“I moved down to Palm Springs in the late ’90s, and sometime after that, he had just moved down from Seattle,” Jones said from San Francisco. “We had both been involved in Democratic Party politics. He was also a member of the peace vigils that were held every Saturday at Tahquitz Canyon and Palm Canyon to oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“He was a really lovely man. He was a gentle soul, very kind, very smart, very hard-working, and it’s just a terrible loss. I’m so angry and hurt that such a wonderful life would end the way it did.”
Jones said people can learn a lot from George Zander about what it really means to be an activist.
“A lot of people call themselves activists, and all they ever do is talk about it or type about it, but George really was an activist and a worker,” Jones said. “He was always out there, and you could see him every Thursday night at VillageFest, and he would be out there with the Stonewall Democrats. He was at every rally, every hearing, and he always did the work. He didn’t just talk about it—he DID the work. I really value people like that, especially in this current age with people who think clicking on a screen is activism.”
Jones reflected on the fact that such an attack happened just off Arenas Road in Palm Springs.
“Right in the gayborhood, and right where it’s supposed to be a safe place,” he said. “I believe we’ve won some very important victories in recent years, but there are so many of us who are still being beaten up and murdered, and too many of our kids who are committing suicide and (contracting) HIV. Our work is not done and never will be.
“I would like to believe that what happened to George and Chris will have some meaning, and I hope and expect that many people will see this as a dreadful reminder that there is work to be done. It’s so hard to convey to people who didn’t know George what a sweet and dear man he really was. I just really don’t have the right words to describe what a gentle soul he was. I don’t recall him ever engaging in any mean-spirited stuff. He was very positive and brought out the best in people in everyone that he was around.”
Chris Zander has been keeping a low profile and declined to speak to the Independent. However, on Dec. 21, he took to Facebook to discuss plans for a memorial service for George.
“We have not yet decided a date for George Zander’s celebration of life services,” he wrote. “I will make sure to post it on both of our pages as soon as a date has been chosen. I know there is a sense of urgency with many of his friends to pay their respects, and I would like nothing more than to honor that, but at this time, I am still in a bit of shock and haven’t been able to make a clear decision on when all of this should take place. Thank you for all of your LOVE and support!”
Photos below: George Zander and friend Ray Chance; Zander at a rally for transgender rights; Zander and Jeanne Legault, during his days in Seattle; Zander and Congressman Raúl Ruiz.