Once just a typical student at the University of Iowa, 20-year-old Zach Wahls became activist hero almost instantly in January 2011 when a viral video of him speaking before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee about being the son of a lesbian couple became the most watched political video on YouTube.
Now the straight ally par excellence has written My Two Moms, a poignant memoir about growing up with his two mothers, Jackie and Terry, as well as the surprise of sudden fame and how he’s incorporated the values of the Boy Scouts into his life. (Each chapter of Moms is named after one of the Scouts’ 12 values—Obedient, Trusthworthy, Thrifty, Brave, etc).
At 6’6″, Wahls towers over his moms and sister, Zebby. But he’s an incredibly warm, respectful and well-spoken young man with a true calling: He’s taken time off from school to tour the nation and discuss the realities and myths surrounding gay families. When he returns to school, he’ll continue his studies in environmental engineering. (He hasn’t ruled out a career in politics, though.)
Queerty’s Evan Mulvihill chatted with Wahls about who My Two Moms is written for, whether we can count on President Obama to fight for LGBTs, and how to prevent more bullying of gay teens.
Queerty: Who is My Two Moms aimed at?
It’s a dual mandate. First, I want to give a voice to the other kids with LGBT parents. Kids like me answer the questions that I mention in the book all of the time. We get told so often by so many talking heads and political figures that there’s some huge flaw or some huge problem having gay parents. Even though we know that on a very fundamental level that’s not true, it’s still important to repeat.
Secondly, when it comes to talking to somebody who’s on the fence about gay families, I think the book does a good job of laying out the values behind me, behind my family. If you look at those values they’re very much not just in the political but the clutural mainstream of America. The book is structured around the 12 values of Boy Scout law, each chapter is titled “Be Prepared,” Obedient, Trustworthy, Kind, and so on. I hope it acts as a bridge for some people who are still on the fence.
More than 50% of Americans have said they support gay marriage in national polls for some time now. Do you think the next 20% or 30% will be hard to crack?
If you look back at the trendline, 12 years ago in 2000, support for same-sex marriage was at about 35%. Two years ago it was 44%. Today it’s at 53%. We’re on this accelerated pathway. I don’t want to use derivatives to make a point, but if you look at the slope of the trendline, it’s extraordinarily clear where the country is headed on this issue—toward a place of more inclusion, more diversity, and more acceptance.
You’re showing your engineering background! After we get marriage equality, what’s next for LGBT rights?
While we’re moving forward quickly when it comes to lesbians, gays and bisexuals, but when it comes to [trans] people, there’s still a lot of work to do. Trans people are an important part of this movement, and we need a gender-identity-inclusive ENDA. In Texas, for example, the state recently tried to annul a marriage between two transgender people. We can’t just secure marriage equality, think our work is done and pack up and go home.
Has becoming a speaker, author and public figure taken over your life, or are you going to still pursue engineering?
It’s such an important time for LGBT rights, with the momentum we’ve picked up over the last two years. The Obama administration’s decision to consider DOMA unconstitutional is also a huge step, and I don’t think the community always understands the importance of it. I thought this was an important time to take time off from school. This is really something that, while I enjoy doing, I’m not interested in as a career. My expectation is that in 2013 or 2014, I’m going to return to my studies full-time to finish my degree in environmental engineering.
That’s something I’m considering. There are a lot of conversations that need to happen, both internally with my friends and family, and also with the community. I think talk of political office before I have a college degree is premature at best, so it’s definitely a conversation I will rethink once I have my degree.
You talked about including the “T” in the LGBT rights. Why do you think there’s been some friction between trans people and the greater gay community?
I think why there’s a disparity between “LGB” people and “T” people is because somebody who has a sexual orientation that is not heterosexual, they have to do some soul-searching and figure out what that means in a heteronormative society. But they don’t have to think about their gender identity. A trans person has to think about their gender identity, and the result that will have on their sexual orientation. You have to fight against heteronormativity twice as a trans person.
Do you think President Obama is just waiting for a better political climate to endorse gay marriage?
I can’t tell you what President Obama’s private reflections on marriage equality are. I know he’s been a Christian for his whole life, so I know there might be some religious beliefs to reconcile. However, when you look at what he did with the Defense of Marriage Act. By declaring it unconstitutional, he removed an incredible amount of legal standing in the court.
Queerty wrote recently about Kathryn Lehman, who helped draft the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Since then, though, she’s come out as a lesbian and is fighting to get DOMA repealed. That feels like a prime example of the cultural change we’ve seen over the past 20 years.
That actually speaks in a very real way to the central message of my book: that the sexual orientation of my parents have zero effect on the content of my character. That’s just to simply observe that a person’s sexual orientation, or race, or class, or education or what have you is a very poor indicator of what that person is like. Being told a person is gay doesn’t tell you a lot about that person’s character.
What I think we’re observing in [Lehman’s] case is… a woman who was involved in some level of self-loathing. Did that mean her sexual orientation was giving her strength or not? No, of course not, it was the content of her character. Those are two separate things.
How would you convince a conservative talking head like Bill O’Reilly to support gay rights?
When we have these conversations, we have to meet people where they are. We need to understand them before they can understand us. I think it’s incredibly important to understand why Bill reacts to gay people the way he does. Even though that sounds assimilationist, I think at the end of the day it comes down to whether or not you are so self-important that you simply stand for what you stand for, consequences be damned. If you want to make the world a better place you’re going to have to compromise. You’re going to have to do some things that you don’t want to do.
I’ve never had it happen in the middle of a conversation, like a light bulb going off. But I have had people come up to me after I’ve given a lecture at a college and tell me, “I came in here not knowing how I felt about the issue, and was split both ways, but walking away I just really agree with your side of the argument.” That’s always an incredible thing, and makes giving these talks worth it.
Recently, 14-year-old teen Kenneth Weishuhn committed suicide in your home state of Iowa, a marriage-equality state. How can we can protect gay teens more effectively? It does get better, but sometimes not in the high-school environment.
Sometimes not even college is better. The Sioux City Journal, which the biggest paper in the northwest part of Iowa where this happened, published a full-page editorial on their Sunday edition—the entire first page—with a call to action against bullying because of Kenneth’s suicide. It was totally unprecedented in the history of this newspaper. People are slowly starting to realize that we have a responsibility as human beings to say that bullying is not a rite of passage. It’s not a simple trial that everybody has to go through. It’s not how people get stronger. There’s that great Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” But that’s not always true. Sometimes bullying will destroy you. And teachers, when they step into that classroom, have a responsibility to protect their students, no matter their sexuality, race, or creed.
How about straight allies like yourself—how can they protect gay teens?
Dumbledore once observed that it takes a lot of courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes even more courage to stand up to your friends. Even though it seems a little awkward to quote Harry Potter here, it’s so true. It’s going to be the courage of young straight people who don’t necessarily have a gay brother or sister or gay parent, it’s going to be those young people calling out straight people who make a big difference.
While gay activists are obviously important for LGBT rights, straight allies are so crucial in moving things forward.
We still live in country where there’s an idea that homosexuality is a choice. This is an obvious departure from the women’s and black rights women, because nobody doubts that you’re [born] a woman or a black person. It’s something you can see. When it comes to something like attraction, you can’t see it. There’s a disconnect. It’s a civil-rights issue where allies are unusually important, because of the nature of heteronormative status. The fact of the matter, though, is that gay people have an incredibly important role to play, and nobody doubts that. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be who I am without my moms.
Photos: Leslie Von Pless/Lambda Legal, Warner Bros, GLAAD, Zach Wahls