Zach Wahls discusses marriage equality

PAC speaker brings unique perspective to state debate

On the night of Oct. 1, the Political Awareness Committee PAC hosted former University of Iowa student Zach Wahls as a speaker in the Pause on “What Makes a Family.” Wahls rose to prominence last year when a YouTube video of his address to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee during a public hearing on the topic of gay marriage went viral.

The video, which has received over 17 million views since its initial posting, is footage of Wahls’s testimony to the Committee on what it was like for him being raised by two women.

In the year and a half since Wahls became a household name in the fight for gay rights, he has been asked to speak on almost every major media network with the notable exception of Fox News, has authored a best-selling book and last month, addressed the Democratic National Convention, voicing his support for President Obama. He’s 21 years old.

Wahls was born via in vitro fertilization through an anonymous donor to his mother, Terry Wahls. By the time he was 3 years old, his mother had met Jackie, the woman who would become Wahls’s second mother, and the woman whom Terry Wahls would later marry. That same year, Terry Wahls gave birth to a daughter, once again via in vitro fertilization, through the same anonymous donor used for her son. As Zach Wahls highlighted both on Oct. 1 and in his speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, this makes him and his sister full siblings, a fact that has always been “really cool” for him.

In a time in which gay marriage is such a hot issue in Minnesota, Wahls’s presence on campus Monday night seemed very fitting. He spoke against the proposed Minnesota marriage amendment and commended Vikings punter Chris Kluwe for his recent remarks on the same topic.

Wahls began his talk by discussing various events and dates that collectively had brought him to where he is now. He cited the signing of the Defense of Marriage Act DOMA as one such pivotal moment, as it affected the lives of his mothers directly. DOMA is a federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition, explicitly excluding homosexual couples.

He next chose a moment eight years after DOMA was enacted in 1996, fast-forwarding to 2004 and the speeches given at the Republican National Convention. As a child who had been raised and loved by two women for most of his life, he could not understand why these politicians were standing up and asserting that there was something wrong with families like his.

Primarily, however, Wahls spoke in depth on what he believes it truly means to be a family. Though he originally planned to show the audience the YouTube video that went viral and led to his fame, due to some technical difficulties, he instead gave the audience a live rendition of his famous speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee. Just as it was during that public hearing in 2011, his three-minute speech was met with passionate applause from the audience.

Wahls then began detailing some of the main points of his 2011 address. The first point was the fact that to him, this nationwide debate is not about “gay marriage.” It is simply about marriage.

“My moms don’t live in a gay house, or drive gay cars . . . or have a gay dog, as far as we can tell,” he said. “But the point is they’re not gay married. They’re married.”

He also addressed the question of whether or not a lack of a male father figure has had detrimental effects on his development. For him, the only observable difference is a positive one. “Compared to my male friends who have been raised by straight parents . . . I’m much better at putting the seat down,” he said.

This is not to say that Wahls was devoid of male role models his entire life. He stated at one point that his “moms did not elope to some all-female compound in ‘Lesbia-state,'” and that he had friends’ fathers to teach him how to do ultra-manly things like shave.

Wahls then hypothetically posed the age-old questions those against gay marriage love to ask: Why marriage? Why not just settle for civil unions and domestic partnerships?

He asked the audience, “What images pop into your mind when I say the word ‘marriage’?” After a brief pause, he spoke again. “Did you think of going down to the county clerk’s office and filling out a marriage license?” He invited the audience to indicate whether or not they had. Not a single person raised his or her hand.

He chose to close his discussion with some more stories of his own background. He specifically spoke of the time when he learned the power of words.

“Words have an incredible amount of power that will never, ever fail,” he said. “The words that we speak have the ability to change our lives and the lives around us.”

Following his talk, the audience was able to have a question and answer session with Wahls, along with a chance to meet him, take pictures with him and have books signed by him. Clearly moved, audience members of all orientations swarmed around Wahls, thanking him for his inspiration and dedication to LGBTQ rights.

What does Wahls’s story mean for the future of marriage in America?

“It’s a big message,” said Dory Liem ’13. “All of [Wahls’s] examples and stories ring true, but I think the biggest thing is to stress the emphasis on love. It’s not trivial to these families. Marriage means love and acceptance from society.”

For Wahls, the main struggle now is purely a political one. Addressing what his game plan would be should Mitt Romney be elected president in November, Wahls said, “We will have a man in the oval office who supports a federal amendment to the United States Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Obviously it would require a lot of effort to defeat. A lot of work to do, but I would be more than happy to put work into that”.

Politics aside, Wahls says, “This culture war is over. Love has won.”

senm@stolaf.edu

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