SARANAC LAKE - Zach Wahls never thought he would become an Internet sensation when he spoke to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee about his two lesbian mothers in January 2011; he just wanted to right some wrongs of his past.
Wahls, a 20-year-old from Iowa who's used his Internet fame to travel the country advocating for gay marriage rights, gave a talk at North Country Community College Tuesday night.
He told the crowd of about 50 or 60 students, teachers and community members about his life growing up with two mothers, and he delved into the national debate over gay marriage, which flamed up with the contentious Republican primaries over the last few months.
Zach Wahls, whose testimony about growing up with two lesbian mothers became an overnight Internet sensation in early 2011, speaks to a crowd of students, faculty and community members Tuesday night at North Country Community College.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Wearing a black shirt with the sleeves pushed up over his elbows and a pair of jeans, Wahls was dressed more casually Tuesday than the gray suit and tie he wore when addressing the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in the video that now has about 2.5 million hits on YouTube. He spoke just as articulately, though, drawing audience members in by making comparisons to their own lives, using humor and sifting through methodical, well-reasoned arguments.
Wahls began by explaining the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed on Sept. 21, 1996, and bars a gay marriage certificate issued by a state where it's legal from being recognized in other states. He said it's hypocritical that the two people instrumental in passing the act, then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were both in the middle of extramarital affairs.
He explained that for his family, the Defense of Marriage Act creates problems.?Though his mothers got married when Iowa legalized gay marriage in 2009, his "Tall Mom," Terry, has multiple sclerosis and if they're traveling out of the state and Terry needs medical attention, his "Short Mom," Jackie, doesn't have legal authority to make medical decisions for her, as spouses normally would.
He told the crowd about his life growing up with two moms. Terry got artificially inseminated as a single lesbian in 1990 and had Zach - and a few years later his sister through the same anonymous sperm donor - then met Jackie in 1995.
Wahls said it was tough when the family moved from Wisconsin to Iowa when he was in fourth grade. It was an age when kids were just learning to use terms like "gay" and "fag" in a negative connotation, and when kids found out his parents were gay, he became a social outcast and was bullied regularly.
"It was hard," Wahls said.
When he got to middle school, it was a clean slate, and he was faced with the choice of standing up to the other boys on the school bus and becoming a social outcast again, or joining them in using derogatory terms for gay people to be one of the cool kids.
"When I was younger, I said a lot of things I still regret a lot to this day," Wahls said. "That wasn't a fun time."
He said he would call other kids "fags" to impress the other guys; then he would go home to his gay parents and feel remorse.
So when he went to high school, he made the decision that he wasn't going to participate in that kind of behavior anymore. Then the first thing he heard when he walked in the door to his new high school was one student saying to another, "Hey fag, get over here."
That prompted him to write a column for his school newspaper telling his classmates how using those terms not only hurts people who are gay, but it also hurts their family and friends. He came out to his new high school as the guy with two moms.
When the issue of the paper was distributed, he regretted the decision, thinking he was going to become a social outcast again. But his classmates only gave him positive feedback, and even the guys in the football locker room would catch themselves and use another insult when he was around.
"I learned that people aren't going to stand up with you or for you until you're willing to stand up for yourself," Wahls said.
That column got picked up by the Des Moines Register, and he got some attention because of it.
So when Iowa Republicans tried last year to pass an amendment to the state's constitution barring gay marriage - "or, as I call it, marriage," Wahls said - he was asked to testify about growing up with gay parents.
He said he saw that as his opportunity to make right the times in middle school when he used derogatory terms for gay people, or when other people did and he didn't say anything.
So he testified in front of Iowa politicians on Jan. 31, 2011. The state's House passed the bill anyway, but it died in the Iowa Senate later that week.
He told the crowd how he never expected the testimony to go anywhere. But unbeknownst to him, an intern for Iowa Democrats video-recorded the testimony and posted it on YouTube to share with her friends. Two days later, he was getting calls from "CBS's Morning Show" and other national news outlets. By the end of that week, he had plans to appear on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" and had signed with a speaking agency that brings him all over the country to tell his story.
He also spent some time Tuesday night answering all the big questions he gets when people find out he grew up with two mothers: Are they hot? (Not really, he said, but they're handsome if you're into middle-aged lesbians.) Don't you want to meet your father? (No. He wouldn't mind hanging out with him over a pitcher of beer, but he has no deep-seated desire to find his sperm donor and develop a father-son relationship with him.) Is homosexuality natural? (Yes, it's been documented in more than 1,000 animal species. Homophobia, however, has only been documented in one species.) Is artificial insemination natural? (No, but neither is an iPad. It's all a function of modern technology.)
Wahls told the audience at North Country that the discussion about gay marriage is uncomfortable, combining three of the biggest social taboos: politics, religion and sex. But being uncomfortable is not a good enough reason to take away people's rights, he said.
"So let's have that conversation," he said.
He noted that there's a difference between the kind of marriage Republicans are talking about when they say gay marriage will ruin the country, with a big wedding ceremony in a church and a party afterward, and the marriage the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community wants, which is signing a piece of paper in a county records office that would give them more than 1,000 federal protections.
"That's what the people in the LGBT community want," Wahls said. "It's about the rights."