At the front of the room, Zach Wahls towers over the teens assembled for the discussion. That’s partly because he’s twenty-one years old, 6'5", and seated on a bar stool beside teenagers in easy chairs. But it’s mostly because he’s been on the speaking circuit as an outspoken advocate for same-sex-headed families for a year and a half, polishing his message and harnessing his crowd-winning charm to great effect.
“You might have seen me on the Internet giving a speech about the ladies in the front row,” Wahls said, to cheers and applause. He was at once referring to the three-minute speech he delivered to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in January 2011 as it debated a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Iowa, and to his mothers and sister who were joining him for Family Week. Video of his testimony was posted on YouTube, and he became an Internet sensation for his succinct and powerful description of the loving family his lesbian parents created. “It’s the three-minute speech that changed my life,” Wahls said.
Since the day of his testimony, January 31, 2011, Wahls’s life has been irreversibly altered. He was a second-year student at the University of Iowa planning to be an environmental engineer. He’s now the public face of the campaign for acceptance of same-sex marriage and gay families.
Earlier this year, Wahls, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City, released a book about his family, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. In 2012, he has more than 100 speaking engagements scheduled. One of these was a short speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democratic Party included support for marriage equality in its party platform for the first time. Wahls has launched an “Out to Dinner” campaign to encourage those with reservations about homosexuality to share a meal with LGBT people, contending that it’s harder to discriminate against someone you have met face-to-face and broken bread with. And he has taken on the Boy Scouts of America, an institution Wahls loves. He spent his boyhood in scouting, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. Wahls this year launched Scouts for Equality (scoutsforequality.com), aimed at encouraging the BSA to end its policy prohibiting gay people from participating in Scouts.
Wahls calls the odds of his returning to his previous ambition to become an engineer “low.” He sees himself continuing to work as an advocate for social reform—as a speaker, writer, journalist, or politician.
“He’ll be president,” said his mother Jackie Reger, whom Zach describes in his book as “Short Mom.”
“He’ll be president of many things,” said “Tall Mom” Terry Wahls. “He’ll be leading transformative change.”
Wahls’s telegenic good looks won’t hurt his chances of success. He sports an athlete’s build, close-cropped hair, and a cultivated stubble. Perched on his bar stool at the teen panel, he’s wearing a faded green baseball cap emblazoned with the Boy Scouts fleur-de-lis.
Wahls excelled on his high school debate team and is skilled at speaking dispassionately about emotional subjects. But it’s clear this morning that his passions are rising. Beside him, members of the teen panel are painting rosy pictures for the audience about the normal lives they lead at home and at school, despite their nontraditional families. “I don’t feel quite as lucky as some of the kids up here,” he said, not hesitating to confront how challenging it can be to grow up with gay parents. “It involves sex, politics, and religion all wrapped up in a nice bow—a nice gay bow.”
He tells the parents, “We don’t always want to tell you that who you are is causing us harm,” he said. “You have your own struggles that you went through when you came out, and we have our struggles when we come out. And we do come out. I did it my freshman year in high school, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
When he was a freshman, Wahls wrote a column in his high school paper calling his fellow students out for calling their classmates “queers” and “fag.” He disclosed that he had lesbian parents and mused that someday maybe he and his classmates could attend a school “where you are defined by your character and not by your sexual orientation.”
Wahls details his high school days, and his entire youth, in My Two Moms. He takes the name of each chapter from the Boy Scout Law (“A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”), the motto (“Be prepared.”), and the slogan (“Do a good turn daily.”). The approach permeated his upbringing, not just because of his involvement with the Scouts, but also because of his parents’ focus on instilling proper values in Zach and his sister, Zebby, every day.
Wahls believes that his childhood was more shaped by his mother Terry’s medical condition than by her sexuality. “I never thought of myself as a kid with gay parents,” he said. “The MS was defining.”
Terry suffers from progressive secondary multiple sclerosis. As a child, Zach watched her transform from an accomplished athlete who had earned a bronze medal in tae kwon do in the Pan American Games to a near-invalid, confined to a reclining wheelchair. It’s a condition that Terry has largely reversed. A practicing physician and professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, Terry said she retaught herself cellular biology and undertook her own study of ongoing medical studies of MS. She designed a regimen of nutrition and exercise, which she dubs “the Wahls diet,” and her condition began to improve dramatically. Miraculously, Zach said.
Terry gave a ted Talk about her regimen and has a contract with Penguin to write a memoir about her recovery and her prescription for living with MS.
Zach’s mother Jackie also works in the medical field, as a nurse practitioner in a Veterans Affairs clinic. When Zach was a young boy, Jackie was den mother of his scouting group. While Zach spoke on the teen panel, Jackie was sewing badges on his Boy Scout uniform. From Provincetown, Zach was jetting to Michigan to attend a 100th anniversary celebration of the Eagle Scouts.
Wahls said Unitarian Universalism is important to him and is part of who he is. “I have a UU message,” he said. “I talk about the inherent worth and dignity of all people at every event.” His Scouts for Equality campaign asks the Boy Scouts of America to welcome all people. The campaign calls for Boy Scout councils, troops, and parents to stand up to the national board in protest of its policy that discriminates against gay people participating in Scouts. As of September, Scouts for Equality reported that more than 470,000 people stood with them, and that 1,504 Eagle Scouts had joined the organization.
Wahls has no regrets about having participated in scouting, and he has not joined the group of Eagle Scouts that have mailed their badges back to the BSA in protest. He is committed to working for change from within. He told the parents listening to the teen panel, “If your son wants to join the Scouts, do it. It’s a great experience. We all know this policy is going to end. It is just a question of when.”
Looking on from the front row in Provincetown was Zebby. Zach dedicated My Two Moms to her, his shy sister who stays well in the shadows of the spotlight fixed on her now-famous brother. “It’s been a hell of an experience,” she said, balancing a thick spy novel on her lap and taking every opportunity to read a few more pages. At 18, Zebby is attending the University of Iowa, studying art and drawing, and harboring hopes of becoming an art detective. “I’m glad it happened to him and not me,” she said.
Though her family life has been laid bare for all to see, Zebby said the biggest impact she has felt is Zach’s travel schedule, which means she spends a lot more time home alone. But the potential of his message resonates with her. “He’s been able to touch so many people,” she said. “He’s doing it because it makes a difference.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (pages 6–8).
- Scouts for Equality. Campaign to encourage the Boy Scouts of America to end its prohibition on gay Scouts and adult leaders. (scoutsforequality.com)