In January 2011, then 19-year old Zach Wahls spoke before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee ahead of a vote that would have repealed same-sex marriage in the state. A video of his speech was uploaded to YouTube that evening, and in the hours and days that followed, Wahls found himself thrust into the national gay rights debate.
Wahls has since worked on gay acceptance in the Boy Scouts of America and has toured the country, speaking to students in colleges and high schools. He’s also written a New York Times bestseller, “My Two Moms,” which brings him to Atlanta for a June 27 reading at the Friends School, sponsored by Charis Books & More and Atlanta Pride.
GA Voice spoke with Wahls about growing up with two moms, his goals and aspirations for the future, and why it’s important to put the toilet seat down.
GA Voice: My mom came out of the closet while I was in high school. Even then, some 15 years ago, the gay rights movement was on its heels after years of political defeats, and being the child of a lesbian mom in the rural South was subject of rumor and taunts. What was your childhood experience like and how did it shape your view of family?
Growing up in the semi-rural upper Midwest is certainly a different experience than growing up in either the deep South or either of the coasts. There’s a pretty strong “live and let live” mentality in our part of the country.
I think part of it has to do with our incredibly harsh winters and the agrarian roots from which we were all grown. If you get stranded in the middle of a blizzard, it doesn’t matter if the guy who pulls your tractor out of the ditch is a openly gay man or a devout conservative priest.
When that kind of interdependence is deeply instilled into your character, I think it’s hard for most folks to get too upset, even when they disagree. That’s a long way of saying that while there were certainly some other people and other families that disapproved of my parents and their “lifestyle choice,” it was never a huge deal in my day-to-day life.
There were kids who picked on me when I was in school, but difference is nearly always dangerous and it comes in all kinds of stripes and shades. And from that understanding, I think, I learned that family is what you believe in.
It isn’t just a straight, legally married WASP couple with two and a half kids, a dog and a white picket fence. A family is a group of people who love each other.
Your address at a hearing of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee back in January 2011 propelled you into the national gay rights debate. Did you have any idea at the time that your speech could become a hallmark moment in the equality movement?
Not at all. I had no idea that I was even being recorded, let alone that it would be uploaded to YouTube.
What’s been the best moment following the video of your speech going viral? Your appearances on “The Daily Show” and “Ellen” must have been a lot of fun.
Depends on how you define “best,” I suppose. “The Daily Show” was absolutely coolest. I grew up watching Jon Stewart break down the news as he lampooned politicians and hypocrisy, trying to help America find humor during the Bush II years. To actually meet him in person and to be on his show was a dream come true. The fact that he had actually read and enjoyed the book was icing on the cake.
The 2012 Democratic National Convention is definitely a close second. But the most deeply personal moments have been the ones I’ve found as I’ve gone across the country speaking at high schools and college campuses.
There are too many to recount here, but one evening earlier this spring, as I stepped up to give a talk in rural Wisconsin not even 30 minutes from where I was born, there was a folded piece of paper on the lectern.
I unfolded it as I began to speak, and trailed off from my remarks as I read it. There was just one word: “Hope.” Powerful stuff.
You’ve also been an advocate for gay-inclusion in the Boy Scouts of America. Many in the LGBT community feel the recent rule change in allowing openly gay scouts but not gay leaders is a hollow victory because parents like Jennifer Tyrrell — the Ohio lesbian mom who was booted from the group over her sexual orientation in 2012 — are still banned from participating. What do you think, and what is next on this issue?
Last year — almost exactly a year ago, actually — I founded Scouts for Equality, an alumni association of Boy Scouts dedicated to ending the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay youth and parents. We now represent more than 7,000 Eagle Scouts who are committed to ending this policy.
We absolutely agree that there’s more work to be done. As the son of a gay couple, I was deeply torn when the BSA announced that they’d only be voting on this half measure. It’s unequivocally a step in the right direction, however, and indicates, to us, that the BSA is open to having another conversation on this issue. We’re confident that we’ll see a full end to the policy within the next 18 to 24 months.
Not every child of a lesbian mom works for an LGBT newspaper or has the opportunity to address their elected representatives on issues like marriage. What everyday things can straight allies and children of gay and lesbian parents do to ensure continued progress in the equality movement?
Frankly, those kinds of opportunities (working for an LGBT newspaper or speaking before elected officials) are a lot more common than some people might think. It’s just important to keep an eye out for them and to seize those opportunities when they do become visible.
From a day-to-day perspective, though, I think the best thing anyone can do is simply to live your life and to live it well. Be the argument you want to make.
We are, unfortunately, going to be held to a higher standard, but in so doing — and because of the work that people are putting in today and the work put in by the giants on whose shoulders we now stand — we secure the future for those coming after us.
Do you think that straight children of LGBT parents are part of the LGBT community? Is the LGBT community doing enough to embrace and make space for these kids as they grow up?
Absolutely. I know that the last thing any of us want to do is add another letter to the acronym, but especially for those of us who grew up in not the most traditionally liberal places, the alienation and stigma that we face is nearly identical to that faced by those who identify as LGBT.
In my mind, there are strong parallels to race perceptions like the “one-drop rule,” by which if “one drop” of your makeup is non-white, then the whole of your identity is non-white. The same is true of “queerness,” as it were. If a single part of your identity (including your parents) is queer or non-straight, then the entirety of your identity is non-straight.
There are lots of different opinions on this, and I’m sure that mine isn’t necessarily the correct one, but if nothing else, speaking as a heterosexual, cisgender male, I know exactly how it feels to be in the closet.
What was the most positive thing about growing up with two moms? What was something negative that you experienced?
Positive: I learned how to put the seat down. Negative: Twice as many sets of eyes to watch out for me eating junk food or playing computer games.
How has your book, “My Two Moms,” been received? What can people expect from your Atlanta reading?
It’s been received quite well! It was a national bestseller when the hardcover was released. And I’m expecting a positive reception from the folks in Atlanta. It’s obviously a very metropolitan city, and the South actually has the fastest growing population of families with an LGBTQ parent or parents.
What’s next for you personally? Are you still studying engineering at the University of Iowa? I bet you’d make a great politician.
I am still studying engineering, though I’m planning on graduating with a BA in Sustainability Studies before receiving my BS in Civil/Environmental Engineering. And I am not sure what happens after graduation. I’m open to suggestions!
Some folks are definitely interested in seeing me run for office. The question for me, about that, would be whether or not I’m able to actually make the kind of impact I’d want to make.
I’ve already enjoyed some pretty positive experiences in the non-profit advocacy world and in running a for-profit business. There are all kinds of incredible things to do in the world, so I’m going to hold off on pigeonholing myself just yet.
Zach Wahls reading ‘My Two Moms’ June 27, 7 p.m. Friends School of Atlanta 862 Columbia Drive Decatur, GA 30030 www.charisbooksandmore.com
Top photo: In ‘My Two Moms,’ Zach Wahls recounts growing up in a lesbian family and his evolution from Eagle Scout to LGBT rights activist. (courtesy photo)