By Mary Pavlu — Features Editor
Zack Wahls did not realize standing up for what he believed in would change his world or make him a national hero and YouTube celebrity. The 20-year-old engineering student at the University of Iowa, brought up by two mothers, was asked to speak during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives on January 31.
Wahls delivered a speech that opposed the Resolution, as it would end civil unions in Iowa, which is one of six states where gay marriage is legal. Wahls woke up the next morning expecting a normal day, but saw he had six missed calls, 12 new texts, and 300 unread emails. He saw the speech he delivered the night before had already reached more than 1 million hits on YouTube. Later, he received calls from “CBS News” and “ The Ellen DeGeneres Show” requesting interviews. Wahls became an overnight celebrity, and the world was anxious to hear more from the man with two moms.
“[When I received the calls], that’s when I was like, ‘Oh boy. Here we go,’” Wahls said dur- ing his speech at Lasell on March 6. The strength, passion, and love for his family were evident in his speech. His message is that he is a regular guy with a regular family; gender has nothing to do with it.
“I don’t go home and say, ‘Oh hi, my gay moms!’ said Wahls. “I see my parents. I’m home.” His parents are Jackie and Terry, who held a commitment ceremony in 1996, and legally wed in 2009. Wahls was born on July 15, 1991, to then-single Terry through donor insemination. Despite his optimism, Wahls has been a victim of prejudice since he was conceived. When Terry first told her parents about her pregnancy, their response was worse than disapproval. They did not even acknowledge it. “They came around, once they saw how cute I was,” Wahls said.
The Wahls’ town newspaper refused to run a birth announcement when he was born, explaining to Terry that they did not support “illegitimate children.” Once Terry mentioned the newspaper would be hearing from her attorney, it made an exception. Not only did the newspaper run the birth announcement, but an editorial with it, with the statement: “The world is changing, and our policies are changing with it.”
As an athletic child with an interest in nature, Wahls naturally wanted to become a boy scout. There was one problem: Boy Scouts of America has a stated policy banning homosexuals from the program. After the scouts learned more about the Wahls family, similar to the newspaper, they made an exception. Jackie, who he calls, his “short mom,” soon became the leader of his Cub Scout pack.
Although Wahls had dealt with prejudice since birth, dealing with it became harder in fifth and sixth grade.
“My peers began to look at my family and say, ‘That’s weird. That’s different. Zach doesn’t have a dad, so he won’t be good at sports. He’s not a real man,’” he said.
His love for his two moms made him keep the bullying a secret until his mothers could tell some- thing was wrong. His moms were worried, and decided to teach Wahls verbal techniques to stand up to the bullies.
Despite being quarterback of the football team, his peers continued to make prejudice comments. He always remained calm, however, simply telling the bullies that he felt bad for them, for having to stoop down to such a level of abuse.
“In time, I realized nobody’s going to stand with you if you can’t stand up for yourself,” Wahls said, and cited Eleanor Roosevelt as his inspiration for this reasoning. Eventually, he decided to write a column for his high school newspaper discouraging the use of homophobic words, explaining that they encouraged a social environment that forced people to lie about who they are.
The article was so well received that one of his teachers persuaded him into submitting it to the Des Moines newspaper. More than 200,000 people read his column. Wahls stressed that homosexuality is not a threat, a theory that the Iowa government seems to believe.
“No gay person wants to change the definition of marriage,” he said.
Still, he explained that while it would be easy to call his opponents “ignorant,” he strives to listen to their views and understand their judgment of homosexuality. “If you’re not respectful, you’ll never know what you can do to change their minds,” he said.
Although his battle for equality has been difficult, Wahls’ lecture was positive and often humorous. He laughed about the time his ex-girlfriend’s mother asked him, “So which mom is the man, and which mom is the woman?” He shared how after living with men his age, the biggest difference about growing up with two moms is that he’s “really good at putting the seat down.”
Wahls is currently on leave from his college to help fight for gay marriage rights. He has been speaking across the country for a year and two months. His first book, “My Two Moms,” will be coming out on April 26.