Zach Wahls has gone from a regular 19-year-old University of Iowa engineering student to an Internet celebrity in less than two weeks. Wahls testified before the Iowa House of Representatives opposing a resolution that would end same-sex civil unions in the state.
His video, went viral after being uploaded to YouTube by Iowa House Democrats. Within ten days of posting, his testimony has gotten over 1.5 million views. Wahls is like any other college student, except that he was raised by moms Terry and Jackie, and his testimony emphasizes his family’s normalcy and love for one another. Zach made time to answer a few questions with Campus Progress by email to talk about his stirring testimony, youth activism in Iowa, and what he sees for Iowa’s future.
What's been the reaction to your testimony in Iowa? Why do you think it's gone viral in the way it has?
The reaction has been unbelievable. A bunch of statewide newspapers have written about me, I did three back to back to back TV interviews on Thursday night and probably about 20 interviews total.
I think part of it is that with my testimony, lots of people have a new perspective on an old issue and see that their own lives aren't so different from mine, which is definitely something that people connect with. Personally, it's an emotional topic, and maybe people see some overlap there.
Tell us about your previous activism, such as writing op-eds, or generally being vocal about your family.
You know, I haven't really been active before. I write a weekly column for the Daily Iowan, and I've written a column about this before, but generally, this isn't something I've been vocal about before. Like I said in my testimony, I really don't think it's a huge part of who I am. It's not something I spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about. I had an op-ed published in Iowa's largest newspaper right after the ruling in April 2009, but other than that, my own contributions have been pretty minimal.
How engaged do you find your peers to be on issues of LGBT equality? Do you think the fight for marriage equality in Iowa is backed by a lot of youth activism?
I don't think a lot of my peers are actually that engaged on marriage equality and other LGBTQ issues because, for the vast majority of us, it isn't an issue at all. Our generation is so accepting that we don't even give this a second thought. I mean, it's why the daughters of George Bush, John McCain and Dick Cheney are all supportive of marriage equality.
There's a huge generational divide. The right of same sex couples to wed is so obvious to us that we often forget about it. So, no, most of us aren't engaged on these issues. Because of that, however, I actually see a ton of potential for people our age to engage our parents and other older family members and community members on these issues and help show that same-sex marriage really isn't something we should be scared of or is somehow dangerous.
There have been a few well-publicized studies that claim the children of female same-sex parents are happier and more successful than kids of heterosexual couples. Do you also think your family is exceptional in some positive ways?
I think that those probably aren't controlling for a number of factors that are completely unrelated to the sexual orientation of the parents involved. The thing is that for same-sex couples to have kids, odds are they've gone through a number of trials and tribulations that heterosexual couples usually don't experience. The fact is that while there are a few things about my family situation directly tied to the sexual orientation of my parents, the biggest things that have affected me are not related to their sexuality. Terry and Jackie have always stressed family values, the importance of living modestly, etc. Those have had a way bigger impact on me than anything else.
How do you think marriage equality and other LGBT rights and protections will fare in Iowa, over time? Have you noticed any cultural shifts over time, as you’ve grown up?
I'm really optimistic. Like I mentioned earlier, our generation is incredibly accepting. So, even though there's still a chance HJR6 [The Iowa Marriage Amendment, which amends the Iowa constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman] could become the law of the land in Iowa, give it twenty or thirty years and I am supremely confident that the validity of same-sex marriage will be recognized by law.
What other LGBT rights and protections would it be/would it have been helpful for your family to have? Obviously, marriage equality is far from the last LGBT struggle, so what do you see on Iowa's horizon in terms of other progressive legislation?
Well, luckily, the status quo in Iowa covers all the rights and protections that our family needs. It's crazy to me that in some states, gay couples are actually prohibited from adopting children. It's hard for me to believe that that's the case in the land of the free. Going forward, I think it's going to be really important to protect and further improve health care reform laws. Like marriage equality, I think there is a lot of rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims flying around that need to be grounded so we can have a rational, adult conversation. Iowa is actually an incredibly progressive state in our own Midwestern way. I'm incredibly proud to be an Iowan.
* This piece was originally published under Kay Steiger's name, but the piece was produced in whole by Jessica Mowles. We regret the error.