Ever since the day 19-year-old Zach Wahls stood up in the Iowa Legislature and proclaimed that “I was raised by a gay couple and I’ve done pretty well,” he’s done even better.
His impassioned speech in defense of same-sex marriage hit a nerve that touched people’s emotions across the globe.
A video of that speech, collected 1.5 million views on YouTube within a matter of daysafter he delivered it to spellbound politicians in the House of Representative. It became popular in Australia, and the entire speech was translated into Spanish and aired across Spain. For several days, it ranked as the fourth story on The Huffington Post.
Accolades poured in. Hard-boiled news commentators gushed. Talk show hosts rushed to book him. And stars tweeted and blogged about him.
“You MUST Watch This!!!,” celebrity blogger Perez Hilton proclaimed, dubbing Wahls a hero and an inspiration.
“You make me proud, brother Iowan,” said Hollywood heartthrob Ashton Kutcher.
With fame, came opportunity. He’s arranged a book deal to write about growing up with his two mothers. He’s already traveled across country to speak, and he’s lined up a lecture agency for more traveling and speaking. On Saturday he addressed the hundreds of people gathered at Iowa State University for the state’s annual Gay-Straight Alliance Conference.
It’s exciting and mind-boggling, he says, but it’s also an opportunity to spread his very serious messages: gay couples have a right to marriage equality; his life with two moms is as all-American as anybody else’s; and the road to resolution of this divisive issue lies in a civil discourse that will not alienate people who are still grappling with it.
The national recognition has even extended to his family. Wahl’s biological mother, Terry Wahls, M.D., was recently stopped at a Texas airport by two people who recognized her.
“They stopped to tell me how moved they were by Zach’s speech,” Terry said. “I think his testimony is changing the conversation around gay families and normalizing it.” “Parenting is about character development.”
Character also is a part of her son’s message, and he delivered it in his State House speech: “The sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of character,” he said.
His mother was single and living in Wisconsin when she decided to have children and did so through in vitro fertilization.
“Many of my gay friends didn’t understand why I wanted to have children and do so in rural Wisconsin,” Terry said. “Many of my straight friends said, ‘Terry, you’d be a great mom,’ and my own mother said, ‘Terry, being a single parent is exhausting. It’s far harder than you realize.”
Terry gave birth to Zach on July 15, 1991, and to his sister Zebby in 1994. He and Zebby also have the same anonymous donor.
Growing up with two moms
Wahls was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Iowa City with his sister and biological mother. He realized he did not have the traditional parenting unit when he was young, but said that the fact that his mom was single for a brief period of time had more of an effect on their family dynamic than her sexuality.
Terry met Jackie Reger in 1995, and the couple had a commitment ceremony in Wisconsin in 1996. They had a legal ceremony in Iowa in the summer of 2009.
Despite the Wahls family’s unconventionality, Zach said that he did not face an overwhelming amount of adversity growing up.
“The last time I lost a friend because my parents were gay was second grade,” he said. “It was a little traumatizing. “Later, those friends came back. I didn’t really lose any friends in the long run. I think that’s a testament to our generation. For us, it’s a non-issue.”
Although Wahl’s knew that his family set-up was different, he never cared about his parents’ sexuality. Aside from a few incidents in grade school, he said it never had much of an effect on him.
When he expressed an interest in the Boy Scouts, his parents were supportive regardless the organization’s strict policy against openly gay members.
“I think the organization has this policy which I disagree with, but for me it was not a reason that I should keep Zach from being in it,” Terry said. “It was certainly a reason to be up front with each chapter and say, ‘here is my family. We want to participate. Is that going to be a problem?’
Terry said their family was never much of a problem. In fact, she and Reger were very involved with the Boy Scouts when their son joined as a Cub Scout in kindergarten. When Wahls was nine he met Nic Jewell, who would become his best friend, in the Cub Scouts in Iowa City. Later Wahls and Jewell became Boy Scouts and decided to strive for their Eagle Scout together. Wahls earned his in 2006 and Jewel earned his the following year.
Wahls described his time with the Boy Scouts as one of the most positive experiences of his life, but wants bring change to the organization’s policies on homosexuals.
The minor struggles that he had with the Boy Scouts were nothing compared to the hardships his family faced when Terry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000.
Wahls recalled times when he would comfort his crying sister while their biological mother was whimpering and screaming in pain. Today, he describes his mother’s recovery as miraculous. She no longer uses a wheelchair and even rides her bike to work. Even so, Wahls attributes the adversity his family faced and overcame as monumental for his family.
“That’s the kind of experience that will define a family,” he said. “I think our family really found its identity in that crisis. When we emerged from that we emerged stronger, closer and more loving.”
An advocate, an entrepreneur
Throughout high school, Wahls took several opportunities to defend his family and advocate for marriage equality in columns for West High’s student newspaper, West Side Story, and even for The Des Moines Register. Wahls was also involved in speech and debate and participated in several school plays.
Upon graduating from high school, he started his own peer tutoring business, Iowa City Learns. He started out personally tutoring students, but once he realized he would be attending the University of Iowa in the fall, he decided to expand.
Since his speech, Wahls hired Jewell as a manager to take over the day-to-day aspects of his business. Even though he currently is not as involved, he is still committed to his business and is interested in applying for a fellowship, Echoing Green’s Fellowship, in order to expand.
“I really think we have the potential to do big things with it,” Jewell said. “He has really good ideas and knows how to put them into action and make them successful.”
In the summer of 2010, Wahls entered the College of Engineering at Iowa. His involvement with the Boy Scouts, coupled with his childhood hobby of building things with Legos, inspired passion for the environment and desire to study civil and environmental engineering.
Although many people have recently questioned whether he will enter politics, Wahls said that he wants to be a civil engineer for the Peace Corps or focus on international sustainability with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Before his speech, he worked as a student instructional technology assistant (SITA) for the University of Iowa’s Information Technology Services Department. He was actually working on February 1 when a coworker told him that video of his speech from the previous evening was all over the internet. “That night, the video had one thousand hits. Little did I know, that would increase by 15 hundred times,” he said.
After the speech
After the video exploded online, producers of the Ellen DeGeneres show contacted Wahls and invited him to be on the show.
“I think you’re a hero,” DeGeneres said to a visibly nervous Zach on the set of her show. “You’re a hero for what you did. I applaud you, and I thank you for speaking out for so many people.”
He also signed with Wolfman Productions, a lecture agency based in Connecticut. His first speaking event is scheduled for Pennsylvania in the fall. He plans to talk mainly about marriage equality during his lectures, but said that there are certain issues within the cause that he feels are important to address. He says people need to be civil when talking about marriage equality.
“There are some 30 percent of Iowans who don’t really have feelings on gay marriage either way and if you’re going to automatically label them as ignorant or bigoted because they’re not strong supporters of gay marriage, you’re going to alienate them and end up doing the cause a disservice,” he explained.
Wahls recently hired a literary agent and has plans for a book which he anticipates will be titled, “My Two Moms: An American Story.” He said he plans for the book to be based on the experiences that his mothers had being gay parents and eventually being granted the rights to marry within the state of Iowa.
With all of these new opportunities coming his way, Wahls he will not be a full-time student next year. Instead he plans to focus on speaking, writing, other advocacy work and will only be enrolled as a part-time student, in fall 2011.
Wahls said he’s excited about opportunities that have opened since his speech but acknowledged that the timing was not exactly ideal. He points to the irony of the overwhelming response to his testimony.
“The point of the speech was that I’m not all that different, Wahl’s said. “To me, it’s nothing special. It’s not like I go through the day thinking, ‘oh my parents are gay,’” he said. “I would probably describe myself in at least a dozen ways before I’d say, ‘my parents are gay.’ That being said, I’m glad I have this opportunity to share my story, however boring that story may be in my eyes.”
(Layla Pena is a sophomore at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and international studies).