When the right to marriage equality in Iowa was threatened by a proposed constitutional amendment last year, a 19-year-old University of Iowa engineering student named Zach Wahls stood up in front of the legislature and told them not to allow discrimination to be written into the state’s constitution.
In three minutes of testimony that went on to earn millions of views across the Internet and turned Zach into a media celebrity, he told them Iowa needed to protect its families, not denigrate them. He said he’d been raised by two moms, and he’d turned out pretty well – Eagle scout, excellent grades, making something of his life. “If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud,” he told the state’s top lawmaker that day.
So how did Zach grow up to be an adult who makes not only his native state of Iowa but the whole LGBT community proud? That’s the story he tells in his just-released book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.
AfterElton spoke with Zach on the eve of the book’s release, and he said he wrote it for the same reason he testified in front of the legislature: to help people understand that families with same-sex parents are the same as other families, and shouldn’t be treated differently by our nation’s laws. The most powerful tool he has to make that happen, he said, is to help them get to know his family.
“People’s minds or attitudes change when meet people like me or my moms,” he said. “They learn they don’t have anything to be afraid of from us. Because it’s fear, at the most fundamental level, that enables and perpetuates negative attitudes toward LGBT people. And fear changes when they meet real people like my moms, and can connect the idea with a real face and a real story. They learn we’re more alike than different.”
Since the video of his testimony want viral, Zach has been spreading that message in appearances on talk and news shows, including high-profile ones like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Late Show With David Letterman.
“The presence of LGBT people in mainstream culture is transformative,” he said. “Most people in my generation can’t remember a time when Ellen wasn’t out, or Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t awesome…. Because they’re familiar to us, we gain the understanding that LGBT people are just that – people – and with that understanding comes the freedom that has for so long been responsible for inequality.”
While it’s true, he said, that most young people aren’t as fearful of gay people, and don’t have the same degree of prejudice that older people often do, equality isn’t a “slam-dunk” simply because of that fact.
“Seventy percent of college students support full legal equality,” he said, “but words like ‘fag,’ ‘queer,’ and all the rest are still pervasive in junior high and elementary schools.”
He gave a recent example of how devastating such bullying and anti-gay slurs can still be. “Kenneth Weishuhn, a 14-year-old boy in Iowa, very popular, came out to his family and friends, and three weeks later, took his life because of the reaction he got from his peers. And right around the time of my testimony, we were in the middle of a string of youth suicides in our community. So I’m very sensitive to the epidemic that is still going in our school system.”
But even that, he says, is a legacy of an earlier era. “A very real part of the reason this harassment exists is that it’s enabled by teachers who are not part of the younger generation. But more importantly, as long as discrimination is codified by our governments, by laws like DOMA, and in the 32 states that have constitutional amendments, we are still in a place where people conflate illegality and immorality. Addressing that disconnect is incredibly important.”
Hence My Two Moms and his hope that it will inspire greater awareness and activism on the part of the LGBT community and its allies. “The future is going to get better, no doubt in my mind, but it won’t get better on its own,” he said. “To use an engineering metaphor, the road may be paved, but the lines haven’t been painted yet, and they won’t paint themselves.”
Zach doesn’t think of himself as a straight ally. “I’m part of the LGBT community, too,” he said. “I was born into it. I think you’ll find the same feeling with other children of gay parents.”
That said, he continued, “Unlike the civil rights movement, where the affected minorities were in the forefront, straight allies are unusually important in the struggle for LGBT rights. That’s because there is this pervasive myth about gender identification and sexual orientation, that they are choices.
“Straight allies completely devastate the notion that in order to support LGBT rights you have to ‘choose’ to be LGBT yourself. Of course we know that’s not how it works, but if someone isn’t sure one way or the other, and is conflicted about the issue of homosexuality or gender identification, seeing allies stand up is incredibly important.”
When he stood up in front of the Iowa State Legislature, Zach was carrying on in what he says is a noble tradition. “Iowa has long history of social progressivism,” he said. “It was one of first states to say that any slave who set foot there was free. It was the first state in the country to allow women into law school.”
Iowa’s roots as a progressive state grow out of its “live and let live” mentality, as well as its agrarian heritage. “If you have a bad snow storm come through, it doesn’t matter if that neighbor down the way is black or white, or Protestant or Catholic, or straight or gay,” he said. “You have to have each other’s backs. And you figure out what is and isn’t important.”
Above all, he said, Iowa’s symbolic value as America’s heartland is huge. “If you can show that the values that define LGBT families are no different than the values that define straight families in Iowa, you can do it anywhere,” he said.
Unlike many political memoirs, My Two Moms is as engaging and strongly written as Zach’s powerful public appearances would suggest. It’s also funny, opening with a caution that “if you really do believe homosexuality is a greater threat to our country than terrorism, you should probably put the book down.”
What he’s really aiming at, he said, is the “moveable middle,” people who are not sure what they think about gay rights, and who could benefit from learning more about LGBT families.
In the book, he tells the story of a cab driver from Latin America who was uncomfortable with homosexuality personally, but still supported equality for LGBT people. “To him, America is the land of freedom, this beautiful place where you have liberty and protections,” Zach said. “And even though he’s not going to be getting gay-married himself, he respected those values, which America is known for all over the world.”
If that sounds like something a Boy Scout would say, there’s a reason for that. In My Two Moms, Zach talks a great deal about his experiences in the Boy Scouts, and the values he learned there. But, he said, there’s a dark side to the organization, underscored by the recent expulsion of lesbian pack leader Jennifer Tyrrell.
“The Boy Scouts of America celebrates religious diversity, and we’re taught not to value one religious belief over another,” he said. “But as we saw in Ms. Tyrell’s case, that policy of diversity is pushed aside, and fear rises to the top.”
The problems with the organization are, he said, at the national, not local, level. “Every person involved with (Tyrell’s) pack was 100 percent supportive,” he said. “The fear was advanced on the council level, by people who didn’t know her or her pack. Their decision was enabled by fear and homophobia.”
Still, Zach continues to support scouting. “This problem is codified into BSA laws, just as it’s been codified into our government. I’m not going to emigrate from the U.S. because I disagree with its policies, even if those policies are very important to me and my family. It’s the same with the Scouts, because the vast majority of my scouting experience was overwhelmingly positive, and instrumental in shaping my character.”
How does Zach feel about being a poster boy for LGBT families? “On the downside, I’ve been accused of being assimilationist and heteronormative from people in our own community, and it’s frustrating at times. And this is certainly not something I signed up to do, or was prepared for. But once the video got rolling – well, here we are.”
It’s not in his nature to avoid a challenge, but he still says he wishes he’d never had to take on this battle in the first place. “None of this would have happened if they hadn’t put forth a constitutional amendment in the Iowa legislature,” he said. “As long as the other side insists on politicizing my moms and our family, I’m definitely going to be a part of the conversation and offer up my own testimony.”
My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family is available in bookstores now.