With that statement, Zach Wahls went from being a 19-year-old college student from Iowa to a staunch LGBT activist with an international audience.
Wahls became an overnight Internet sensation in February 2011 after he delivered a speech to a committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, which was considering a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
The son of two lesbians, Wahls spoke passionately and powerfully about the true meaning of family while, unbeknownst to him, an audience member captured his address on video.
The clip has since amassed more than 18-million hits on YouTube and been featured on national television, and Wahls has appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and, just this week, “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
His new book, “My Two Moms,” was released April 26 and Wahls is embarking on a book tour that includes a stop in Philadelphia, where he will sign copies of the book after serving as a featured panelist at Equality Forum’s National Youth Panel, 2:30 p.m. May 5 at DoubleTree, 237 S. Broad St.
Cross-country trips have become the norm for the now 20-year-old since the video was released.
“I have a lot more frequent-flier miles now,” he joked.
At the time Wahls spoke before the committee, he was an engineering student at the University of Iowa and was invited to testify by the House Democrats who had seen a newspaper column he’d authored about being raised by lesbian parents.
He said he rehearsed the three-minute speech but was caught in the emotion of the moment and ended up ad-libbing some of it.
“I had the remarks in front of me but only probably 70 percent of it overlapped with what I’d written,” he said. “A lot of it was just straight from the heart. I started talking about what makes a family and then just kind of went by the seat of my pants. That’s certainly not advisable but that’s what wound up happening.”
Even though some of it was unplanned, his speech resonated with millions.
Wahls said he believes it was the universality of his message, independent of himself, that appealed to the masses.
“At first, I thought it was because people looked at me and saw someone non-threatening they could relate to — I’m a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I’m an Eagle Scout and a student — so I thought maybe it was my values people could relate to,” he said. “But the more I heard from people, I think it’s because people could understand that the whole reason I was there in the first place was because of the clear love and commitment I have to and for my family, my moms and my sister. I think that shines through and people connected to that. It’s not about who I am as a person — it’s that I demonstrated the love and passion that we all have for our families, and that’s something people could connect to.”
Wahls said his upbringing was one that most could understand — he played sports, competed on a debate team and was in the Scouts, where both of his moms were welcomed.
The response he got from his peers to being the child of lesbians varied as he got older, he said.
As a young child, other kids were envious that he had two moms, but the novelty wore off when he approached the pre-teen years.
“From about fourth through eighth grade, it was really hard,” he said. “That was the time when everyone knew what lesbian meant, and when other kids found out, they’d be like, what?”
Wahls, now 6-foot-5, had a growth spurt in seventh grade, which he said held off many of the bullies.
When he reached high school, he was faced with a new and peculiar response to his parents’ orientation.
“Most guys would say, ‘Dude, you have lesbian parents? Are they hot?’ And I just had to be like, ‘Come on, guys. Really, you want to talk about the sex appeal of my moms?’ So the reaction evolved as I got older and, now when people find out, they usually just say, ‘That’s awesome,’ and that’s it. There’s not much to discuss.”
Since his story became public, however, he’s had innumerable discussions with people who’ve had changes of heart and mind.
One of his most memorable responses was from a soldier about to deploy to Afghanistan who admitted to being brought up with antigay animus. He had been opposed to marriage equality and concerned about the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — until seeing Wahls’ video.
Wahls has also been able to reach members of the LGBT community.
While speaking at a college campus in Michigan, he encountered a young woman who said she’d always known she was a “homosexual” — a word choice that Wahls said illustrated the environment in which she was raised — and that his address had opened her eyes to the possibilities her life could hold.
“She said she was told that she could never be a mother if she was a lesbian and she truly believed that, but she came to realize that it really is possible to be LGBT and be a parent,” he said. “She was crying and I just wrapped her up and we stood there hugging for a minute. It was an incredibly powerful moment. Listening to people like Santorum and Gingrich talk about how gay marriage will destroy Western civilization is often inspiration enough to get me out of bed and keep fighting, but there’s also moments like that with the young woman that really keep me going.”
His latest project, “My Two Moms,” was one of his most challenging.
While he had writing and editing experience at his high school and college newspapers, penning a 70,000-word manuscript on your life is a different story, he said.
“I thought of myself as a writer but I’m an engineering student so it wasn’t like I was studying English or planning this as a profession. So when I was contacted by literary agents trying to make this happen, it was pretty daunting,” he said. “But I’m very happy with how it turned out and so excited for it. It still hasn’t clicked yet that I’m a published author.”
Between his pending book tour and speaking engagements, Wahls said his parents have been integral in keeping him grounded.
“My moms have done a great job making sure I don’t forget who I am, where I’m from and why I’m doing this work, so I’m so thankful to them for that,” he said, noting that he doesn’t intend on a career in LGBT activism. “I want us to get to the point where the notion of a kid writing a book and speaking about having two moms is ridiculous and people would have to ask, ‘Why is he doing that?’ I love it and am having an incredible time but this isn’t something I see myself doing for the rest of my life because my hope is that in 15 or 20 years we’ll be at a point in this country this isn’t needed.”
For now, however, Wahls said he’s eager for his book and his activism work to heighten visibility — among mainstream populations, as well as for children of LGBT parents — about the strength and credibility of LGBT-headed families.
“The main reason I wrote this was so that other kids with LGBT parents realize that they’re not alone. The challenges that they’re facing are not because of their parents but because of people’s perceptions of their parents and the way society de-legitimizes LGBT people,” he said. “And people who don’t come from a family with LGBT parents need to understand that the differences between a family that has two moms as opposed to a mom and a dad are primarily just aesthetic. Honestly, the biggest difference between me and my male peers is that I’m really good at putting the toilet seat down.”