Written by Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Zoyer Zyndel, a Fresno State alumnus known for his community volunteering and advocacy, particularly with the Central Valley’s LGBTQ communities, died in Fresno on Dec. 26. He was 34.
Zyndel earned a Master of Social Work degree and a humanics certificate in administration and leadership for community benefit organizations in 2017, and a bachelor’s in English literature in 2012, all from Fresno State. His campus presence deeply impacted students, alumni, and faculty in three colleges — Health and Human Services, Arts and Humanities, and Social Sciences — as well as the Cross Cultural and Gender Center.
Zyndel’s far-reaching activism and community service embraced the intersections of ability, gender, sexuality, race, and socioeconomic status, and how these areas connect with issues that impact people throughout the region, said Dr. Katherine Fobear, an assistant professor in Fresno State’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Zyndel was involved with initiatives including suicide prevention, homelessness, mental health, and poverty.
“Zoyer was a leader in so many ways and charted a path forward for students, especially transgender students, to find their place and flourish,” Fobear said.
Fobear said Zyndel generously mentored students, and he frequently spoke at campus and community gatherings. In 2019, he collaborated with students on the city’s first Transgender Housing Report, which documented struggles with housing insecurity and homelessness that many trans persons experience. Recently, he was working with the University and the Equal Opportunity Commision’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center on a transgender health project.
Zyndel was a mental health clinician for Fresno County Behavioral Health. He held volunteer leadership roles in countless organizations throughout the past decade, most notably Trans-E-Motion and area PFLAG chapters, as well as Fresno State’s United Student Pride club and Fresno City College’s LGBTQ+ Spectrum club.
Zyndel regularly worked with people in crisis, and “he found great meaning in supporting people when they felt they had no one in the world,” said Dr. Kris Clarke, an associate professor of social work at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
Clarke, a former professor in Fresno State’s Department of Social Work Education, served as Zyndel’s thesis mentor during his time in the Master of Social Work program. She and Zyndel kept in close touch, and she considered him her most beloved friend.
“I learned so much from Zoyer not only about transgender issues, but about being a good person in a world that is not always welcoming or fair,” Clarke said. “He was a true shining light of grace in the ongoing struggle for social justice in the Central Valley.”
Clarke recently interviewed Zyndel for her new Social Work Routes podcast. He spoke of how happy he was, working for the county alongside clinical supervisor Jeffery Robinson, who was a steady and supportive mentor. She said Zyndel felt he was really developing as a social worker, after completing his practical placements at WestCare and moving on to a full job.
Zyndel also talks at length in the podcast about his ethnic heritage. “Zoyer was trans, but he was a lot of other things too,” Clarke said. “Growing up, he didn’t learn Spanish. His family’s migration turned into assimilation by necessity. He was deeply interwoven into many communities, a very intersectional guy.”
She said Zyndel’s hope and optimism in all his work was contagious, and he was generous with his time and caring with others. “He was one of the kindest people I have ever met, he always made me laugh, and he was a beautiful person,” she said. “He touched the lives of so many.”
An advocate for the most vulnerable
Well-known as an activist in the transgender community, Clarke said Zyndel had endless patience, gently teaching people to learn about their prejudices and be better. He was “a one-man transport and support service for the most vulnerable in our community,” she said. “He showed up. He always showed up.”
Clarke said Zyndel was most closely involved with Trans-E-Motion, the local nonprofit whose goal is to provide support and education to transgender persons, their families, and friends. “If you talk with someone who’s trans,” Clarke said, “they’ll tell you Zoyer went to their house every day if necessary, helping them come into their identity, helping them understand themselves.”
In a Facebook statement Dec. 27, the leadership of Trans-E-Motion said it was Zyndel’s “driving mission to be a force for good in this world,” and all who knew him were drawn to that force. “He took it upon himself to create new pathways for people” in the Central Valley’s transgender and LGBTQ communities, the statement said.
One of those people is Hayden Simmons. Now a home health-care provider and caretaker who identifies as genderfluid, Simmons was 15 when they met Zyndel at their first support group in 2012. Zyndel served as Trans-E-Motion chair at the time.
“Zoyer made me feel comfortable to be myself the very first time I met him,” Simmons said. “He had this aura that made you feel like you could be yourself. He never judged anybody. Even if a person had different beliefs and political views, he welcomed them.”
Having a mentor like Zyndel — particularly someone who is similar in gender expression — felt critical to Simmons’ development. “Not a lot of trans youth really get to experience that,” they said. “If I hadn’t met Zoyer, maybe my life would have been completely different. Maybe I wouldn’t be as accepting of myself.”
Zyndel directly mentored so many transgender teens in the Central Valley, Simmons said. “Having lived here as a trans youth and being close to Zoyer, I would say my life was 10 times brighter when he was around,” they said.
Always educating and serving others
According to Dr. Francine Oputa — who recently retired as the longtime director of Fresno State’s Cross Cultural and Gender Center, formerly known as the Women’s Resource Center — Zyndel’s mentoring style was masterful.
Oputa said Zyndel was gracious, funny, kind, and always patient in teaching others about gender and gender expression. “There’s different styles of teaching about diversity, inclusion, and oppression,” Oputa said. “In those public conversations — whether he was on a panel, in a small group, in a classroom, or a larger event — I never remember him making people feel bad about our ignorance. Such a collaborative spirit.”
Zyndel volunteered on the Cross Cultural and Gender Center’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, maintaining relationships with multiple coordinators and countless students at the center over a 10-year span. “That’s service,” Oputa said, “being that servant leader. And why? Because he knew his own experiences, and he wanted other folks to feel a little less terrified.”
Oputa shared the story of a friend who called her several years ago to let her know her child had come out as transgender. Last year, the friend’s son heard Zyndel speak at Trans-E-Motion’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, an event held annually on Nov. 20 to memorialize and honor transgender persons who have lost their lives in the past year due to violence and transphobia.
“I saw my friend’s son transform before my eyes,” Oputa said. “It was like, ‘I got into a space where I can breathe, where I can be myself, where I am not afraid.’ The work that Zoyer and Trans-E-Motion did for those babies who are finding themselves, it’s immeasurable. To be in that space. To be accepted.”
At the center, Oputa said they have a giant sign listing different gender and sexual identities, with definitions. It enables people to more clearly identify themselves.
“Because of Zoyer’s decision to be so public about his own identity, people got to say: That’s me, too. That’s the word for who I am,” Oputa said.
Discovering social work through stories
According to Clarke, Zyndel came to social work as a profession not entirely through his community service but perhaps through an unlikely path: his undergraduate studies in English literature.
Clarke said social work is about stories: the stories that society tells us about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves, and the ways to change those stories in order to make a better society.
“Zoyer studied literature and wrote poetry himself,” said Clarke, who also first majored in English. “He knew the power of stories to shape our realities. Zoyer had shown great courage in living his own story, despite the headwinds of negativity he faced all his life.”
As Zyndel dug into his Master of Social Work thesis project, on the disparities that people in the transgender community face in the Central Valley, Clarke said he captured excellent stories of his subjects.
“Zoyer was a great writer,” she said. “It’s very important in social work; the narrative you construct about people can really define them. He was present with people. He sat with them in their pain and stress, and then he found resources to help them.”
Zyndel wanted the stories in his thesis to show “it’s not just about being trans,” Clarke said. “It’s about street violence, abuse, poverty, and the constant discrimination. All these disparities that prevent people from living their authentic lives.”
Clarke said Zyndel was the second transgender person in the social work program, and the first to finish the MSW degree.
In his undergraduate work, Zyndel asserted himself as a leader in the English department too. He was an instructional student assistant in the campus Writing Center, tutoring first-year students one-on-one and in small groups. He participated twice in the Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas, where he presented research papers on “Passing: Social Acceptance vs. Cultural Pride” in 2012, and “The Bluest Eye and Native Son: Effects of the ‘Self-Loathing Serum’” in 2011.
Dr. John Beynon, a professor of English, said Zyndel was a serious and engaged student who helped to shape the collective personality of the classes he took. He said Zyndel particularly responded to works of literature that examined the overlapping experiences of being queer and being a person of color.
Beynon, current chair for Fresno State’s LGBT+ Allies Network for faculty and staff, always looked forward to seeing Zyndel at events. He said he couldn’t count the number of times he saw Zyndel speaking — as a special guest following an educational film, as a panelist about Fresno’s diverse LGBTQ+ population, or into a bullhorn during a demonstration for transgender rights.
“What I will most remember is his upbeat personality, his ability to make authentic connections with other people, and his sunny and bright outlook,” Beynon said. “Zoyer always had a smile on his face, and his laughter was better than medicine. He was a model activist, and I know that his legacy will live on in the activism that those he inspired will continue to engage in.”
Embracing the brown body without apology
Zyndel’s impact as an advocate for LGBTQ persons is well documented; his impact on LGBTQ persons of color is equally important, according to two of his peers.
Fresno State alumna Erin L. Álvarez said Zyndel was the first openly transgender person she ever met, when they worked as tutors in the Writing Center. She said his presence there — openly trans, in a brown body — was both inspirational and liberating, “in the sense that Zoyer lived his life authentically without apology, so that others like and unlike him could do the same.”
She knew Zyndel best as a literary scholar and a creative writer. His analyses, criticism, and reasoning, she said, was in the vein of a trained doctor of literature; his musings were not of ordinary intellect, but of seasoned scholars.
“And to have witnessed these musings, his first drag performance, and the way he hurried from one job or class or meeting to another always made me smile, because Zoyer had so much goodness to share,” Álvarez said.
Álvarez, a Chicana educator who now directs the writing center at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, said Zyndel was “more than a peer in the Writing Center, or organizer at a protest, or student in the classroom. In a world where Black and brown men are treated in despicable and traumatizing ways, the loss of Zoyer will be felt for generations.”
Fresno State alumna Jacki Alvarez (no relation to Erin) said she became friends with Zyndel as an undergrad because they shared the same vision for the type of world they wanted to live in: “a world that accepts us and others as we are.”
Jacki Alvarez is Portuguese; Zyndel was Chicano. “We used to say we were large and in charge,” ze said, “neither of us apologizing for the space we occupy. Zoyer and I shared being misfits, in academia and in life.”
Showing up in campus spaces in a queer, brown body, Jacki Alvarez explained, often disrupts the white dominance that exists in higher education. The two shared many private conversations about the intersections of their bodies, their race, and the disruptions that they created by occupying the margins in the white, hierarchical spaces of a university.
“We vowed to be inclusive for our own students and as lifelong community members,” said Jacki Alvarez, who is now a lecturer in Fresno State’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “We both found solace in the mentors that we had, and agreed that we needed to create welcoming spaces on campus for other students who faced similar hardships and ostracization.”
Feeling accepted, feeling pride
According to his sister, Mindy Hernandez, Zoyer Zachary Zyndel began identifying as a transgender man in the mid-2000s, while taking courses at Fresno City College. He was born in Fresno in 1986, and he graduated from Clovis West High School in 2004.
Hernandez said at first, Zyndel’s family wanted to be supportive of his coming out as trans — he had briefly come out as lesbian early in high school, but she said her brother “never felt right” with that identity — but they didn’t yet understand what the term “transgender” meant.
In a 2015 interview for Valley Public Radio’s “My Valley, My Story” series, Zyndel explained: “I was assigned female at birth but I live my life as male, and so my sex did not correspond with my gender. Gender is a function of the brain, and I’ve always seen myself in my brain as a male.”
Hernandez said hearing her brother speak at a Transgender Day of Remembrance event felt like a turning point. “Hearing him so comfortable on the mic, we realized, ‘So this is who you are! So this is what you do!’” Hernandez said. “Our parents were really proud of Zoyer. It helped them to get on board with who he was and who he was becoming, which helped with acceptance.”
Zyndel and his siblings grew up as Seventh-day Adventists, “but I stopped going because I felt Zoyer was shut out,” Hernandez said. Her brother was not a religious person, but she said he believed in God and was spiritual. In later years, Zyndel became close with the pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church near the Tower District. He did volunteer work with the church, especially with support groups.
“Zoyer always had faith,” his sister said, “even though some people said God wouldn’t accept him.”
Hernandez said her brother led a full life beyond community service, spending lots of leisure time with friends. He enjoyed cooking; homemade cauliflower pizza was his go-to for parties. He loved taking his chihuahuas, Abby and Maggie, on walking adventures, especially along the Kings River. And recently, he would go floating with friends down the sun-splashed river in summers.
“It makes me feel so proud that Zoyer made such a difference in other people’s lives,” Hernandez said. “To hear all the stories, some for the first time — they really make me feel so lucky to have him in my life, lucky to be close to him. He was such a special person to so many people. He never bragged about it or talked about any of it. He really gave, from his good heart.”
Making himself vulnerable, again and again
Mary G. Castro cannot imagine Fresno or the world without the engaging, welcoming, and approachable smile of Zoyer Zyndel.
The University’s now-former First Lady — whose husband, Dr. Joseph I. Castro, began Jan. 4 serving as the CSU chancellor in Long Beach — said she entered a lot of new rooms when her husband first became Fresno State’s eighth president in 2013.
“You look around to see the clue that people are ready to get to know you,” Mary Castro said. “I don’t remember the event, but I clearly remember Zoyer’s smile. It made me want to know him.”
From there, she said, their friendship started with a conversation. She didn’t realize until months later that Zyndel was such a big presence as an activist and transgender advocate on campus and in the community.
A while later, in an effort to learn how to become a better LGBTQ ally, Castro attended a “Safe Zone” event inside the Henry Madden Library. It was panel discussion featuring transgender students, and Zyndel was on it.
Castro said the panelists were deeply brave. They told stories about their experiences, about being challenged in everything they did. “Not once in a while,” she said, “but every time they entered a room.” She heard stories of incorrect names, incorrect pronouns, fear when using bathrooms, and worse — so many times, not feeling welcome or safe in their current space.
“It takes a lot of courage,” Castro said, “to be up there and relay the stories they were telling, to be vulnerable again and again. When you’re speaking about something painful in your life, you don’t want to keep telling it over and over. But Zoyer did that. He went into those spaces. Not for his own glory, but to help others. It’s so hard. It’s laying yourself bare.”
By the end of the panel, Castro said it felt like those in attendance were truly hearing Zyndel and his transgender peers.
“The moderator asked each speaker one last question: Is there one thing you could say, that you just wish people would know or do?” she said.
“And Zoyer said, ‘Believe me.’ That felt so powerful. People can use a lot of words and not say anything. Those two words, and the tone in which he said them, really captured my heart. It’s as simple as that. If I say: I am this, I feel this, I need this — believe me. And I believed Zoyer. I loved Zoyer. I wanted everyone else to do the same.”
Zyndel is survived by his parents, Rene and Eileen Hernandez; grandmother, Louise Hernandez; sisters, Mindy and Jenny Hernandez; and a niece. Services will be private, due to the coronavirus pandemic; the family will organize a public memorial gathering when it is safe to do so.
Thanks to the widespread support of the community and to the family of Zyndel, the “Zoyer Zyndel MSW Memorial Scholarship Fund” has now been established. Current Master of Social Work students are now eligible to apply for this $1,000 scholarship opportunity, which closes March 2nd. For details and to apply, visit the the Financial Aid and Scholarship portal, and search for the “Department of Social Work Education, College of Health and Human Services”.