Zach Wahls feels so strongly about the current state and imminent transitions of rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that the University of Iowa student has taken time off from an environmental engineering degree to share his personal story as the son of two lesbian mothers.
Wahls spoke Monday night at UTC to an almost-packed house of students and professors. The 21-year-old rose to national fame when a YouTube video of his testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in January 2011 went viral, and he has been making a case for the legalization of same-sex marriage ever since.
Monday’s talk was the first stop on a 34-day tour and was closely preceded by a two-and-a-half week tour. Wahls pairs the speaking engagements at colleges, nonprofits and businesses with work for advocacy groups in each city.
The response at UTC was overwhelmingly positive—though Wahls was quick to note that he was playing to the home crowd. As someone who prefers the question-and-answer format to straight oration, Wahls said he wished more people with a conflicting point of view came to the lectures.
Since speaking to the state legislators, the Iowa native has encountered those opposed to same-sex marriage, and in some cases, the ensuing conversations have provided the foundation for a change of heart.
A member of the Armed Forces rethought opinions that he characterized as anti-gay. A woman gained more of an understanding of what it was like to be a gay person in the United States. Wahls credits those breakthroughs to his message being palatable as much because of his tone and delivery—which are free of residual hostility—as his personal history.
“Because I [am] straight and accessible ... there is a common experience, a common identity,” Wahls said. “I can have the conversation in a way that is very respectful, very courteous, and it allows me to interact with somebody adult-to-adult, instead of falling down to the lowest common denominator of yelling at each other and labeling each other.”
Wahls' talk covers his own biography and the national debate over same-sex marriage, in addition to answering the awkward questions, such as how he was conceived. This year, he also spoke at the Democratic National Convention as part of the work he is doing for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Wahls said he has already cast his vote for the incumbent via an early absentee ballot.
He is also beginning to think about the Supreme Court’s potential deliberations on the Defense of Marriage Act. Though not officially slated for the docket this term, four related cases are thought likely to reach the justices’ courtroom. For Wahls, the bill is unconstitutional by several amendments and philosophically flawed based on its sponsoring lawmakers’ manipulation of the concept of the sanctity of marriage—something he believes is a reflection of the integrity, stability, value and worth of the institution.
Ultimately, Wahls explained, his goal is to demonstrate that that “blood, sweat, toil and tears” required to raise a well-adjusted child is not conditional on one’s sexual orientation. Pointing to numbers from the Pew Research Center that place public support for same-sex marriage as high as 47 percent, he hopes his service as a poster child will not be needed for much longer.
“The kids of same-sex couples were talked about a lot in the 1990s, but now, we’ve actually grown up, and we can speak for ourselves,” Wahls said. “To the extent that the other side continues to insist that we be a part of the debate, I want to be a part of it.”