Just a little over a year ago, Zach Wahls stood before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, introducing legislators to his family, which includes his two moms, Terry and Jackie. Through his three-minute, heartfelt testimony against a proposed amendment which would reverse the right of gay couples to marry in Iowa, the 19-year-old honored his parents’ commitment, became an icon in the fight for equality, and changed how people define the word “family.”
Wahls' testimony quickly became an Internet sensation, with more than 16 million views on YouTube. While his speech touched millions, it particularly resonated with children of same-sex parents whose message of tolerance was now broadcast worldwide.
Wahls parlayed his experience into his first book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family
, released April 26, to let these kids – and any other kids whose families don’t fit the traditional mold – know they’re not alone. On Thursday, May 3, Wahls brings his message here to St. Louis
How a testimony turned into a crusade
When I spoke with Wahls on Thursday, the 20-year-old was having a pretty hectic afternoon, with you know, his book being released nationwide that day and his appearance on Late Show with David Letterman two nights before. Yet, every interview, every book signing is giving him the platform to speak on something so close to his heart.
What’s so extraordinary about Wahls is how “ordinary” his life was growing up in the Midwest. He was an Eagle Scout, a talented student, and an athlete. The only thing that didn’t click with the norm is that is parents happen to be lesbians. Others’ perceptions of his parents led to times when he felt ostracized, but with guidance from his moms, who married in 2009, he learned techniques to best handle the teasing and the criticism from his peers.
It’s his moms’ parenting lessons that Wahls spotlights in his book, changing many individuals’ perceptions that a kid must grow up in a traditional Ward and June Cleaver straight household to fit into society – a perception he understands is hard to change if the Cleavers are all you’ve ever known.
“Many people believe that when it comes to parents, gender is the most important characteristic,” he explained. “But what’s really most important is whether or not he or she has the blood, sweat, toil, and tears to raise hellions into well-adjusted adults. I doubt very many parents would disagree. When you compare gender to how you raise your kids, it’s pretty clear which is more important. I don't want to dimish the validity of gender or sexual orientation, but as important as those things are, there are many more important things in parenting."
Over the past few years, acceptance of marriage equality and the nontraditional family has grown across the country. Wahls’ home state of Iowa is one of six states, plus D.C., that allows for gay marriage while freedom-to-marry bills have passed in Maryland, New Jersey and Washington. The amendment Wahls initially testified against in 2011 eventually passed in the Iowa House, but died in the Senate, leaving marriage equality intact in the state.
Said Wahls, “We’re definitely in a better place than we were 10 years ago. We’re so intimately connected through technology – with Internet-based networks, it’s much harder to ignore the reality of the situation. Bloggers are exposing us to all different people in unique situations, so we can learn more about the differences we all have and the similarities we all share.”
While change has come, there is still a level of intolerance in society that can make children of nontraditional families feel like outcasts and even bullied since they don’t fit the mold. Wahls noted that it’s easier for children growing up with gay parents today, but kids can still be “vicious little buggers” to one another. Through My Two Moms, Wahls helps give kids the strength they need to celebrate their uniqueness and the uniqueness of their families and shares with parents how to instill confidence in their children.
“We’ve heard stories from kids a number of times over the past year and a half. I tell them, if you find yourself ostracized because of your identity or your family’s identity, just know it will get better. It may be later in life that the situation improves, but it does get better. Second, remember you have a choice in how you react. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best – ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ And finally, know you’re not alone. The ‘different kids’ are out there – there’s more of us than you know, and we’re doing just fine.”
Wahls will be reading from My Two Moms at Left Bank Books’ downtown location on May 3 starting at 7 p.m., and 10 percent of book sales at the event will go to the LGBT Center of St. Louis. For more information on Wahls, visit www.zachwahls.com.
By Nicole Plegge, Lifestyle Blogger for SmartParenting
Photos courtesy Zach Wahls ©Leslie Von Pless/Lambda Legal