By Dawn Wolfe
On Jan. 31, 2011, a nineteen-year-old college engineering student stood up for his moms when their marriage was threatened by the Iowa legislature.
Within twenty-four hours the video of his testimony was burning up the Internet, and Zach Wahls found himself an instant celebrity. Wahls stepped up to the challenge, taking his message about his “boring” life with his two moms to The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Daily Show, and other national forums.
Not content to bask in his extended fifteen minutes of fame and call it a day, Wahls has continued to use his celebrity to advocate for the rights of the LGBT communities, including the “queer spawn” of LGBT parents. His autobiographical book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes A Family, hit bookstores in April 2012. An Eagle Scout himself, Wahls is the leader of Scouts for Equality http://www.scoutsforequality.com/, the grassroots organization seeking to overturn the BSA’s ban on LGBT Scouts and volunteers.
In addition to his LGBT advocacy, Wahls is the owner of a successful tutoring business, Iowa City Learns http://www.iowacitylearns.com/, and a passionate environmentalist.
Wahls took time from his incredibly busy schedule – he is still a part-time environmental engineering student at the University of Iowa – to speak with BTL about being a queer spawn and being a straight member of the LGBT community, his environmental advocacy, and how a crush on a girl started him on the path to becoming one of the LGBT movement’s youngest (and most famous) activists.
Before we get any further, I have to ask – you’re a published author, you run a small business, you’re an activist for LGBT and environmental causes, and you’re a part-time student. Do you ever get any sleep?
(Laughing) I get about 4-5 hours a night. I’m doing all right at the moment.
The term “queer spawn” has been used to define children of LGBT parents since at least 2006, when an award-winning documentary by that title came out. How do you feel about the term, and what does it mean to you?
I don’t mind the term. I think one of the challenges we have as a movement is that occasionally we forget that there are those of us who are not LGBT-identified who are part of the community. I like “queer spawn” because it reminds me of that, and because it makes some people very, very uncomfortable. My existence makes some people very, very uncomfortable – but I don’t think discomfort is a bad thing.
One of the reasons I identify so strongly as a member of the LGBT community is that I was born into this; I didn’t choose this. I know what it’s like to be in the closet, and I know what it’s like to be hated and feared because of who I am. Society sees me as an LGBT person – I don’t think it makes a lot of difference whether I actually am gay or straight.
While many people who step up to the LGBT advocacy plate make that work their full-time passion, you’ve managed to balance your advocacy on behalf of sexual minorities while continuing to speak out as an environmentalist. Why is this important to you?
Actually I got involved with environmental stuff because of the Boy Scouts – I spent a lot of time in the outdoors growing up. The beauty of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time… I’ll never forget the serenity of walking through a forest. … From as young and as early as I can remember I’ve been a passionate, passionate supporter of environmental work…
Not all women spend their time on women’s reproductive health issues, not all people of color concentrate on racism issues, civilians do peace work – the thing is not to let yourself get pigeonholed by any aspect of your identity, but to do the work you’re passionate about. I do look forward to wrapping this (gay advocacy) up so I can get back to my environmental work. … While it’s tempting to say you have to do what makes sense to your identity – and in some sense that’s true – you need to do work you find gratifying and fulfilling, or your work will not be sustainable.
Your famous testimony before the Iowa legislature wasn’t the first time you stood up for your family publicly – your first public statements were in a series of columns you wrote for your high school newspaper. What led you to take what must have been a pretty scary step?
The story’s kind of funny. The first time I wrote about it publicly I was a freshman in a high school Intro to Journalism class – we had the opportunity to write a column for extra credit. … I didn’t think it would ever be published; it was just between my teacher and me.
The day we got our papers back mine was covered in red ink, and I was a little scared. Then I looked a little bit closer, (and saw that) the column editor for the school newspaper, Miriam, had written, “I LOVED this!” on my paper. I had a huge crush on her, and she loved this thing, and she talked me into publishing it. I was terrified, scared – but MIRIAM!
And you know what? Nobody cared. Nobody in my age group cared – people were really supportive. What I learned from Miriam is that nobody would stand up for me unless I stood up for myself. That was a profoundly important lesson.
You’ll be at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus on March 20. You’re continuing to take classes and do your other work; but that’s the present. What do you see in your future?
This whole campaign (Scouts for Equality) is developing very, very quickly. … I’ll be graduating with my college degree in May 2014 with part time semesters. I’m super stoked – it’s going to be great! I’m also continuing to do advocacy work – I think the BSA work will move to a phase where I won’t necessarily be involved in the day-to-day management. I really enjoy media work, I think there are a lot of possibilities for me, but at this point if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last two years it’s that the future’s incredibly hard to predict.