Zach Wahls: Marriage Equality's New Hero

By: Michael Matson

In his compelling new book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, Zach Wahls reveals one of the benefits of being a straight male raised by two women. The 20-year-old engineering student, whose passionate speech defending his family before the Iowa House of Representatives went viral in a YouTube video during the first week of February 2011, says he knew at a very young age that girls don't have "cooties." Maybe that's one of the reasons Wahls is so effective at allaying the heterosexual fear that homosexuality is contagious.

Zach Wahls' life is proof that gay people don't have cooties, either.

As an Eagle Scout, small-business owner, resident of the Heartland, and Green Bay Packers fan, Wahls is the American everyman. The life he's led and the man he's become is practically anthropological proof that being exposed to gay people, even being raised by them, will not make you gay. Indeed, after his upbringing by Terry Wahls and Jackie Reger, Wahls has become a man with the same populist morality that James Stewart and Gregory Peck channeled in classic 20th century films. This speaks volumes about the quality job his moms did.

Along with promoting his new book, Wahls has also launched Out to Dinner, an advocacy campaign that brings together gay couples, straight allies and people on the fence about marriage equality to share a meal and hopefully better understand one other. Wahls took time out from his hectic schedule (and between chatting with David Letterman and Piers Morgan on TV) to talk with us about Rick Santorum, NOM, and why treating your opponents with kindness and respect is the best path to equality.

In the book, you are critical of people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate who negatively characterize their opponents. How do we make the conversation less polarizing?
By being courteous. Growing up in Iowa, there were people who did not support my moms' relationship; they thought it was a "lifestyle choice." But there were certainly people around who disagreed with the idea of same-sex marriage or LGBT rights generally, but these were people who, even while having that opposition, were polite and courteous to my moms.

What about people in the LGBT community who feel they've been attacked by their opponents and are justified to attack back?
You're not going to change somebody's mind or win somebody's heart by alienating them, by calling them a hateful, bigoted, ignorant redneck. It's not going to get you very far. Of course, the other side has to acknowledge that dismissing us as godless, colonizing sodomites isn't exactly the best idea, either. But in order to [make] progress, we need to have the conversation, and that's what Out to Dinner is all about: sitting down, building relationships, and getting to know each other. And part of what I think the book is going to do is hopefully be a good jumping off point to have that conversation, to build those bridges, build those relationships. Once we've built those bridges, then we can cross them.

Rick Santorum comes up several times in the book, particularly when he refers to a study about low-income families, but misrepresents it as being about children who were raised without both a mother and a father. Should we call out a politician who does that?
For sure. Even though I certainly wrote extensively about Mr. Santorum in the book, I did my best to do so in a respectful way where that respect was warranted. But also call him out when that respect wasn't warranted.

If you're engaging in intellectually dishonest arguments, and you're being untruthful about you're awareness of those intellectually dishonest arguments, then yeah—you need to be called out. Not just by me, but by the media. That's a place where I really do think the media has not been doing its job as well as it could.

I do think we should call out people on our side as well. Because at the end of the day, I think most people are not interested in these kind of ideological positions of fear and isolation. They're more interested in a pragmatic approach to things like love and acceptance.

What about a group like NOM, particularly their involvement with anti-gay legislation, such as Amendment One in North Carolina?
I'm very familiar with NOM. They put forward $100,000 to try and find kids of same-sex parents who would speak out against marriage equality. That they would try to bribe people to do that, in my mind, is pretty despicable. As I say in the book, if you're opposed to gay marriage, that's one thing. That does not necessarily make you somebody who's hateful, bigoted, or ignorant. But there are certainly [some people] who are all those things— or more— who are opposed to same-sex marriage, and I can't help but feel that some of the people affiliated with NOM would fall into that category.

But even if you do look at an organization like NOM, you look at their Vice President [Louis J. Marinelli], who was on that tour two years ago. And after this tour, after spending time out in the world among people who are LGBT, he completely changed his mind. So even though there are people for whom we might feel an incredible amount of frustration or loathing toward, if we are going to completely alienate them and not treat them with the same kind of respect and kindness that we hope to ourselves receive, we're not going to move forward on this issue. Because it was by treating even those people with respect and dignity that [Marinelli] then came around and actually became today one of the most passionate advocates for full equality under the law.

Two Moms could change how some North Carolinians vote on Amendment One. Are you planning to visit North Carolina before the primary?
I was actually just in Charlotte a few days ago, and I'm going to be in Ashville on May 7th. It's going to be interesting. This is a state that President Obama won in 2008 and has been on a democratic trajectory. We'll see if North Carolinians do vote, not just to ban same-sex marriage, but also civil unions and domestic partnerships. Pretty radical stuff if you ask me.

You've said in the past you are not interested in a career in politics. Have recent events changed your mind?
People have been talking to me about politics since before this whole thing happened, actually. I've just got too much other stuff on my plate right now, but it's something I won't rule out in the future. It is something I am interested in, after I go back to school and finish my degree. But it's just not something I'm really concerned about or really fixated on right now.

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