Q&A: ZACH WAHLS KICKS ASS, TAKES NAMES FOR EQUALITY
Zach Wahls is (figuratively) on fire! Just last year, this strapping young Eagle Scout’s speech about his family at the Iowa House of Representatives went viral (twice!), infecting marriage equalitarians everywhere with an itchy, burning rash of optimism about the youth of America. Since then, he’s written a super-inspiring book about his family, hung out with Jon Stewart AND Ellen Degeneres, traveled the country speaking out for LGBTQ rights, and fired up the delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Dude is busy. Recently, he took some time to answer our questions about his book, his advocacy projects, and what it’s like to be the bio son of Donor 1033.
IC: At the end of your book My Two Moms, you write, “No one wants to spend all his time defending his family, and I’m looking forward to a time when mine no longer needs defending. ? How will you know when that’s true?
ZW: I’m skeptical that there will ever be a complete end to homophobia. Fear is one of the most pernicious, base emotions there is, and there will always be some people who don’t understand or don’t want to understand what it means to be an LGBT person or the child of an LGBT parent. That being said, we’re definitely making progress. Given my own limited capacity and energy, there are really three big goals on which I’m most focused:
The first is protecting marriage rights here in Iowa. We have a major election coming up that could decide the future or marriage equality in the state. If we can make it through this cycle, the polling data seem pretty clear that we’ll be all right from here on out.
The second is ending the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay membership policy. This one is more of a race against time. We’re trying to mobilize support for ending the policy as quickly as possible because the longer it stays on the books, the more those who oppose the policy will either withdraw their sons from the program or not enroll them at all, which creates an awful feedback loop. I’ve started a group of current and former Scouts and Scout Leaders to work against the policy, called Scouts for Equality.
The last major goal I’m working on is advocating for kids with LGBT parent(s) within our own movement. There are lots of large advocacy organizations, but none of them advocate specifically for those of us with an LGBT parent or parents. I’m doing my best to represent the interests of other kids like me (and there are 2 million of us across the country) in my work with these large organizations. They’ve been quite responsive, which is heartening because it’s not the easiest topic to discuss. Parents don’t want to think that they’re inadvertently harming their kids — and they’re usually not — but the reality is that there are still an awful lot of people out there who will put the kids of LGBTQ people through hell, simply because of who their parents are.
IC: How old were you when you found out or were able to grasp that your biological father was an anonymous sperm donor? Did your mom(s) approach the topic on a need-to-know basis or was there a Talk of some sort?
ZW: You know, I’ve been asked this a lot, but I don’t have a good answer. Terry (biomom) says that she’s been explaining it to me since I was nursing — before I could understand, obviously — so there’s really never been a time when I didn’t know how I was conceived and there was never a moment when I freaked out or something, wondering where Daddy was or whatever. I was sometimes curious about what he was like, etc., and some of that info was available through the donor questionnaire that we had. There was also a taped interview that we had on CD. I never actually listened to it, though, until I was writing my book, My Two Moms. It was always an “oh, this is kind of cool,” thing, never a “this is a critical aspect of my identity” thing. Do I think it would be cool to catch up with 1033 (his donor number) over a pitcher of beer? Sure. Am I grateful he donated? You bet. Do I want to drag him to family functions? Not so much.
IC: Most of the noise in the marriage equality debate is coming from people who are a decade or two older than you. Is the conversation is different among people your age?
ZW: I think most folks my age don’t really have the stomach for the culture war. In the meaningful ways for us, most questions have been settled. Now, that’s not to say that there’s perfect uniformity — there isn’t. But the numbers are overwhelmingly supportive for most of us under the age of 35. We still have a ways to go in social support — and trans issues, I think, are just getting started — but in terms of the political support, I think we’re there.
There is an interesting juxtaposition though — many people who are supportive of same-sex marriage still use words like “fag” and “gay” in a derogatory way. Doesn’t make the most sense to me, but I care much more about how you vote in booth than the words you use in casual conversation. This isn’t to diminish the importance of confronting verbal harassment and abuse when it occurs — which is all too often — but to observe that the moral authority the state has in setting and defining broad social norms is much, much more powerful than that of a ninth grader saying something stupid on her way to class.
IC: Iowa City is a lot more progressive than most coastal Americans would like to admit, but it’s definitely not San Francisco or New York. What would you most want LGBTQ families in smaller, less-gay-friendly places to know about your experience growing up in Iowa?
ZW: I don’t know if it’s so much that they don’t want to admit it, but that they simply wouldn’t believe it. There’s this prevailing mindset on the Coasts, sometimes, that they’re the enlightened ones and that everything in between is just rednecks and corn. One, I know some really supportive rednecks. Two, it’s not just corn — there’s an awful lot of soybeans, too.
But yeah, Iowa City is not small-town Iowa. My mom Terry grew up in small-town Iowa and I spent many weekends of my youth visiting our grandma who lived in Elkader (population: 1,250). A close friend of mine who also has two moms grew up in Grinnell, which is a little bigger than Elkader, but she still had it really rough when she was growing up.
I think there are way more things to say than I have space for here, but the most important thing is this: protect yourself and do what you have to do to get through the day. Sometimes, as a community, we want to be out and proud and “live your truth” and all that stuff, but when you’re living in a place that’s not gay-friendly, that mentality can get you killed. There were times when I had to lie through my teeth, and I lived in a city that voted for Obama 70–30 in 2008.
Once you’re in a place where you’re getting through the day, then, by all means, live your truth. But getting through the day is the most important thing.
IC: Jon Stewart told you that after reading your book, he wanted you and your moms to raise his kids.* The book is much more about the importance of family in general than about the experience of having gay parents. Was that your intention from the beginning, or did it arise as you were writing?
ZW: That was one of the single most incredible, humbling, inspiring, abso-freaking-lutely amazing moments of my life. It was such high praise. The book was written as a tribute to my family — it’s dedicated to my sister — and an explanation of the values we all learned together, so while I didn’t set out to write a book about the importance of family, in retrospect, it does seems pretty obvious that that might have been where the book would have wound up going.
*Note: This reaction may seem unreasonable, but only if you haven’t read the book. I haven’t had this much family envy since the “Night Time is the Right Time” episode of the Cosby Show.
IC: What other projects are you working on now?
ZW: In addition to the three goals I mentioned in the first question, I’m also speaking out on a number of elections and ballot questions this fall. I’ve endorsed my good friend Chris Murphy, in Connecticut, for US Senate and am doing some surrogacy work for the Obama campaign. I’m also working with Minnesotans United for All Families against the proposed anti-marriage constitutional amendment. And I actually just got back from a whirlwind public education tour across Iowa about the importance of marriage and why it matters to families like mine with the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa. I’m hoping to return to school in the spring.
IC: OK, I have to ask — you allude in your book to somehow talking your moms into letting you have a subscription to Playboy. How did you manage that?
ZW: Some secrets are too good to share.