"I just wanted to defend my family."
Simply stated, this is why Zach Wahls stood before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 31, 2011 and gave his testimony about being the son of a lesbian couple. Zach had no idea that his impassioned speech about "what makes a family" would go viral on YouTube, with over 18 million views. Nor would he, as a young man at the age of 20, understand immediately the positive impact his words would have on millions of people.
As the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, I have had the pleasure working with thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and ally young adults over the last two decades. Their energy, drive, resilience, and passion are exactly what the LGBT movement needs more of right now.
I had the chance to sit down on Easter Sunday with Zach, "that kid from YouTube," as he is referred by many, to talk about his life since the viral video, the Boy Scouts, and his new book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family.
In reading your book, it definitely serves as "How-To Guide" for parents to begin to understand and talk about LGBT families. What would you say your hope was for the book?
My primary goal of the book is to have other kids with LGBT parents know that you are OK. You are not alone. There are literally hundreds of thousands -- some numbers suggest over a million kids being raised by LGBT parents in this country. I want this book to be for those kids, kids like me who have to defend their families and stand up to be seen. If along the way to doing that, I can move others to change their attitudes or opinions, that's a bonus.
What was the common denominator to your family being accepted by other families?
If you are a decent human being, how you interact with a family like mine is abundantly clear. You interact with us like you would with any other family: with respect. As I mentioned in the book, what has been a defining part of our family has been my mom Terry's battle with multiple sclerosis, and her recovery. It has been those hard times that defined us.
You talk in the book about the Tooth Fairy and then later how you played "Smear the Queer." Each story was a humorous but valuable lesson for you and your family, providing insight into everyday issues that may come up with kids of LGBT parents. I will let readers learn more themselves, but do you think that kids at young ages learn anti-LGBT behaviors through games like "Smear the Queer"? Or when do they understand the language?
I don't think it is that simple. But I do know that my friends changed the name of the game to "Crush the Carrier," as I share in the book. I went back to them and told them to do it. They never thought twice about it. I was not aware, and neither were they, at the time, of the term "queer," so it was not difficult and we were friends.
The book is full of so many practical, often simple, common-sense lessons, quotations, and tips on being a parent, on being a kid -- frankly, just being a good person -- positive citizenship, if you will. How heavily do you think these lessons you share are influenced by your life as a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Eagle Scout?
I am glad it read that way. The book, my story, has a lot to do with the Boy Scouts and my journey to being an Eagle Scout, the highest rank of scouting. Each chapter of the book is written around the Boy Scout Law -- 12 values (be Prepared, Obedient, Trustworthy, Thrifty, Brave...) -- which I did intentionally to show how my life was shaped by the Scouts and how my family values are congruent with the Scouts ... and with basic family values.
Your book is going to shape values on family and how people think about marriage. What do you tell people on both sides about marriage equality, specifically anti-gay-marriage amendments that write discrimination into state constitutions?
Anti-gay-marriage amendments tell families like mine that we don't have a right to exist. There are two conversations to have. On the one hand, there is the conversation that we need to have person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor, parishioner-to-parishioner level. Then there is the conversation we need to have on the political side. The fact of the matter is if you look at this from a legal, constitutional perspective, this is crystal clear. Wham, bam. This is over and done. When you look from a personal side, it is more nuanced. It requires a great level of good faith on both sides. It is a hard path, because we live in a country which has stigmatized LGBT identities for a very, very long time. But we have to have these difficult conversations.
In the book you talk about your grandparents and how they impacted you personally throughout your life. What advice do you give to young people who want to talk with their grandparents about LGBT people, or to come out to them?
It is about personal experience and how you view life. For every person this is incredibly personal. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. For some people it is going to be hard; for some it will be based on faith. Young people can share intimately with their grandparents. Faith is not an absolute indicator. Ultimately, it is about the head and the heart. There are many people of faith who have reconciled their head with their heart in understanding gay couples like my moms. We all have a choice. When we have youth speaking up and sharing their stories, it gives us a glimpse as a society into what the future holds. Young people can accelerate progress.
You talk about being bullied in your book. Bullying is something everyone is talking about now -- finally. You also talk about acting out as a result of the bullying, too. What do you have to say to kids being bullied, or to the bullies, that at the end of the day might make a difference?
There are a lot of kids of LGBT parents who are being bullied today. Any time you are different, you are going to be targeted. I was. The physical, mental trauma of bullying is real. It hurts. Luckily, my bullying was never that severe, and it could have been a lot worse. But I did feel like I had to respond, and I took that negativity from being bullied out on those around me. There are more victims than just those being bullied. It's cyclical, and the lack of control you have being bullied makes you feel helpless. Again, what I experienced and shared in the book is minor compared to many other stories of young kids being bullied today.
I was thinking this book would be excellent for a gender course or discussion in college. It explores a lot of gender stereotypes and assumptions and what is real about gender. Did you think about this any in writing the book?
Yes. I did for sure. When I was younger my gender was called into question incessantly. I looked very androgynous until about seventh or eighth grade. I didn't really start having facial hair until I was a senior, and my voice is not particularly low. I was pretty androgynous. But I have been very comfortable in my masculinity. Having lesbian moms, you're more attuned to these conversations of gender, particularly when your moms are not gender-conforming. Gender is something I understand, and I am more comfortable with fluidity in expressing gender. I haven't been afraid of defying preconceived gender roles or being open. The idea of gender being explicity one or the other, I don't buy that.
Your moms were so intentional about teaching family values of respect, civility, and kindness, things that all families should teach their kids. In the book you share openly about this. Do you think more families should do the same?
Yes. I agree 100-percent. A very real difference about having lesbian or gay parents is that you don't accidentally become a parent if you are in a monogamous gay or lesbian relationship. When my mom Terry was trying to get pregnant, she was very deliberate about ways to teach about values. My mom didn't have to do that, but she wanted to be intentional in raising her kids. You can't just wing it when it comes to parenting, regardless of who you are.
Both your moms were involved as den mothers in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Do you think that the best way to educate is simply "being" who you are as a family?
I think of it less as changing vs. winning. As far as in most people's mind, they are not really sure what they want to believe; they are not sure what they want to pick. I think of it as winning hearts and minds, not changing. I think that the best way is to simply be who you are... and the person who you are is the person you want to be, want them to see. If you're unethical or rude, I don't want you representing our families. Be a good person, be the best you can be. There is no need for a soap box, just live your life.
The LGBT community has gotten used to giving money to causes to engage the political process, but we don't necessarily have everyday conversations to create change. Your next big project, "Out to Dinner," is about creating relationships and having conversations. Can you share why you believe this is important now more than ever?
Out to Dinner engages our straight allies and starts the conversations around who we are. You know, marriage equality support is moving in our direction. The more LGBT and ally people and families come out, the better we all are. Now is the time to have difficult conversations and to create new friendships with people who have never met someone LGBT. Out to Dinner simply reminds us that we are all more alike than we are different. There is a lot of work still to be done.
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This summer Zach will be honored with Campus Pride's National Voice & Action Leadership Award at the annual Camp Pride, where LGBT and ally youth come from across the country July 17 to 22 in Nashville, Tenn. In addition, Zach and several other LGBT and ally young people were recently featured in the premiere of Legalize Gay: The Civil Rights Movement of a Generation on Logo.
Today's movement for LGBT fairness and equality is in good hands with the next generation of LGBT and ally young people. Indeed, these young people are leading the way. We need Zach, and every young person, engaged in our LGBT and ally movement. As Zach stated in his Iowa House Judiciary testimony, "If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I would make you very proud."
I have to say after meeting and spending time with Zach that I would be very proud to call him my son. Thank you for defending all our families, Zach.
Zach Wahls' book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, is now available in local bookstores and online.