As I was walking my 4-year-old to preschool on Wednesday, she asked a random question in that charming way with non sequiturs that little people have: “Can two girls get married?”
One preschool friend had said they couldn’t, and yet both my daughter and her friend were well aware that another child in the class has two mommies. Were those mommies married? Were they not?
My daughter was completely confused and expressed major concern about things just not making sense: if two girls could wed, you might wind up with two princes or two princesses. How weird.
Distilling the subject of gay marriage turned out to be simple. Most of the time, I told my daughter, a girl falls in love with a boy and vice versa. But sometimes, girls fall in love each other and want to become a family; boys too. It doesn’t seem right to be mean to someone and not let them get married just because they do something different from what most people do, does it?
She shook her head. Case closed.
Our conversation struck me as ironic because hours later, I was scheduled to speak with Zach Wahls, a son of two lesbian women, whom more than 18 million people have watched on YouTube as he told the Iowa House of Representatives last year that the “sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on my character.” His speech became YouTube’s most watched political video of 2011.
Wahls, 20, is tall, dark and handsome; he’s a brother, a son and a small business owner — he runs a peer tutoring service. In the days after his video first aired in Jan. 2011, he was besieged by literary agents jockeying to represent him. As a result, Wahls — who was 19 when he delivered his testimony during a legislative session held to potentially repeal the right of gays to marry in Iowa — is now an author. His book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family, comes out on Thursday.
Here’s a portion of our conversation, in which Wahls explains why he was embarrassed as a kid to have lesbian parents and why that’s no longer the case.
Healthland: What do you call your moms?
Wahls: Mom and Jackie. Terry, my biological mom, had me when she was single. She knew she wanted to be a mom. She met Jackie when I was 4. At that point, she was already well established as mom. And Jackie was Jackie.
What is the one thing that’s most different about being raised by two women?
The biggest difference is that I’m really good at putting the seat down. I’m not kidding. When you’re growing up at a time when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are talking about how dangerous it is to have gay parents, you start to wonder: is there a big difference? And that’s the biggest I’ve been able to identify.
Why do you think some people are so opposed to gay marriage?
Nearly all of this hostility is rooted in fear, in the unknown. They don’t understand that my moms and I root for the Packers on Saturday, we change the batteries in our smoke detectors, we get groceries from the grocery store. Having lesbian parents is a lot like being really tall. I’m 6’5”, but I don’t think about the fact that I’m really tall until someone points it out to me.
How did you wind up speaking in front of the Iowa House of Representatives?
I was invited to speak that evening by One Iowa, Iowa’s largest LGBT organization. My senior year of high school, when marriage was legalized in Iowa, I wrote a column that ran in Iowa’s largest newspaper. When they needed someone to speak, they remembered me. I was one of five speakers. It was Ping Pong all night about whether they should repeal the rights of gays to marry or uphold it.
Were you surprised that the video of your speech struck such a nerve?
At first, it was like intoxicatingly awesome. It was like, This is awesome. I’m awesome. Then I felt totally overwhelmed and I was panicking. Who do you talk to in that situation? My moms didn’t know anything about going viral. I had a former teacher who used to work on Capitol Hill call me. It was a snow day and we hashed everything out and put together a battle plan. It was a quick progression from totally intoxicated to overwhelmed to empowered and I’m ready to do something. It was the worst snow day of my life.
How did you make your decision to write a book?
My family is pretty private, we’re a typical Midwestern Iowa family. We sat down as a family and discussed it together. I got emails and Facebook messages after my speech. A young man, probably a few years older than me, wrote on Facebook that he was a week away from shipping out to Afghanistan. He was raised in the Deep South and he was anti-gay. He told me he’d been opposed to gay marriage and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but after watching my testimony, he felt it had changed his mind. He was no longer scared about serving next to a gay man in the military. I was blown away when I read that. I thought, If I can change these kinds of minds with a three-minute video, what can I do with a whole book?
Did you ever wish you didn’t have two moms?
Of course. There were a lot of hard moments. Having lesbian parents was difficult especially in late elementary school. When you’re that age, being different is dangerous. But the reason I had those thoughts wasn’t because of my moms; it was because of how other people reacted to my moms. There is no inherent problem with having same-sex parents; it’s about whether or not you are accepted or rejected by your community.