I caught up with Zach Wahls in Provincetown, MA for Family Week, an annual gathering of LGBT families after he read from his book.
Lesbian Life: You’re in Provincetown for Family Week, did you ever have anything like this when you were growing up?Zach Wahls: We never did. We had our own family summer get togethers. It was not in Provincetown. It was in Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.
Did you have contact with other kids who were from LGBT parents?Yeah, a few. There were other kids, in the neighborhood even, who had LGBT parents, but it was definitely a small number. We were in Iowa.
What was that like for you, to watch your parents get married after being together for 15 years?It was awesome, in a word. It was about damn time, honestly. They had been together for quite a time at that point. And the fact that it was not legal was really frustrating. But it was great when it finally happened. It made it that much sweeter.
Had you and your family been active in LGBT politics at all before you made your speech?No. Well, when I was born, the newspaper refused to publish my birth announcement because they didn’t do “illegitimate children.” Terry was not very please with that and politely informed them that they would be hearing from her attorney. They ended up changing the policy. She likes to joke now that I was an activist straight out of the womb. But really, that was the extent of it.
So, what spurred you that afternoon to go speak?This is a long story and a short story. The short story is that I was invited to speak. And then I drove out and testified. The long story is that I wrote a poem my senior year of high school and it ended up running the Des Moines Register, which is the state’s largest newspaper. I was then invited to work with kids in Colage at a conference that was happening in Iowa in the Fall. I went there and met Lambda Legal’s communications director. They litigated the case in Iowa that legalized same-sex marriage. Then when this hearing was announced, there was a call for speakers, she got in touch and then the rest is on the internet.
So one day, you’re just a college kid out studying for exams and the next…The video blew up in 0-60 in four hours. That’s the speed of the internet. It was uploaded Tuesday afternoon and by Wednesday late morning, I’m getting a call from MSNBC, I’m on the phone with a producer from Ellen DeGeneres. Literally, less than 48 hours after I’d given the speech. It was less than 24 hours after the video was online.
In your talk, someone asked you the highlights of your last year, you said one of them was being on John Stewart.Yes. One hundred percent. And Ellen was great too. But I grew up watching The Daily Show. I love Ellen, I talked to her a little bit after the show.
So, here you are. Your life has really changed, huh?A little bit. It’s not like what most kids my age are going through.
But you just jumped in and you’re along for the ride?I didn’t really jump in, the ride kind of swept me away is probably a better metaphor. It’s been a year and a half now and I still don’t have a good grasp. I keep using the word crazy, because it’s really the best word. It’s all just insane. The whole thing. What’s up with the bill in Iowa right now? It died in the Senate. Democrats have a razor thin majority. The question in the Fall is going to be whether or not Democrats can take back the house. They have a pretty large hill they have to climb and play defense. But it’s still close. If the republicans take back both chambers in the Fall you could potentially see that legislation post again in January 2013.
So it’s a proposed amendment for the constitution. What’s the process?It’s actually one of the hardest in the country. You have to pass it through back-to-back legislative sessions, each of which lasts for two years. And then after that it goes up for a vote on the ballot. So, it takes at least three years. We think if we can hold onto one chamber this Fall, it would be a mute issue, because that means the earliest it could go on the ballot would be 2017 and by that point the demographics would be in our favor to the point that we think we would win a popular vote.
And of course, you know battles like this are going on all over the country.Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m going to be spending time in Minnesota. I’m going to be there for a week campaigning up there. And of course Washington State, all eyes are on Washington.
If we win any of them, it will be the first time we’ve won at the ballot box, which takes away that last talking point that the other side has, which is that it’s always lost.
I’m sure right now you’re probably being pulled in a million directions by different activist organizations who want you to speak for them. How are you handling all that?I’ll work on specific projects, like the Family Equality Council has a project called Outspoken Generations training other kids to be spokespeople. And that’s going well. I’ve done a little issue specific work with HRC and Freedom to Marry and groups in Iowa.
I’m going to be speaking for two and a half weeks in Iowa specifically. Got to defend the home stadium first. Most of my efforts recently have been focused on the Boy Scouts stuff and starting my own organization called Scouts for Equality. (Which is working to end the Boy Scout’s policy of banning openly gay people from participating in its programs.)
We love the Boy Scouts, but we oppose this policy. And we are doing what we are doing because we believe it’s in the long-term interest of the Scouts to end this policy. The longer this policy remains on the books, the more relevancy the Boy Scouts loses to this generation, who has frankly already answered this question.
We think it really is in the best interest of the boy scouts to end this policy.
Where does the opposition come from?The Mormon Church. The way the BSA operates is like a franchise model. There is a national brand, but then each individual each individual troop is sponsored by a community. It can be a school. It can be a church, it can be a civic group, a bunch of citizens, whatever. Mormon churches sponsor troops that account for 20% of the entire BSA organization. One in five scouts comes from a troop that is sponsored by a Mormon church. And in fact, it’s in Mormon Church doctrine, if you open a church, it has to sponsor a boy scout troop. It’s codified.
The Mormons have said point blank, if you force us to accept gay leaders, we will walk away. From a pragmatic perspective understand why the Scouts are being so careful. This is a minefield for them. Obviously public support is very rapidly turning against them. On the other hand, if they lose 20% of their membership, they cease to exist.
What we’re trying to do is show BSA that it is in their own long-term interest, if they do care about membership retention is that they do want to end the policy. That’s the approach to follow. What we’re trying to show them is the long-term consequences outweigh what could happen in the short term.
The fact is the Mormon Church is actually a lot less conservative then everybody thinks it is. Certainly a large part of it is very conservative and they played a large part behind Prop 8, but at the end of the day, I just can’t bring myself to believe that a lot of gay people are going to want to join Mormon troops.
When you decided to write your book, you based it on the principals of the Boy Scouts, what was your thought process when you decided to structure your book in this way?It was convenient more than anything. I’m 20 years old. I’m writing a book about my life. There has to be something to bring it together. There has to be commentary, there has to be something a little bit greater than this story.
Part of it too, was trying to show that these are the values that are important to me, so that when you try to have this conversation, like family values are antithetical to LGBT families, that is objectively not true. And it might force you to reevaluate what does the term family values mean. And it becomes very clear very quickly that it doesn’t really mean anything.
You have a lot of fans who are parents of LGBT kids, what about the kids of LGBT families themselves. Have they reached out to you as well?Yes. And that’s been one of the most rewarding parts. Emails. Facebook messages. Getting tweets from other kids who have gay parents. During the 90s Newt Gingrich stood up and in front of Congress and said we are creating a generation of kids that are lab rats. We’ve been talked about for a long time, but we really haven’t had a representative who is really one of us, who could stand up and speak. And I’ve been tossed into this role. I think a lot of us who are sick of being talked about are glad to have a voice. And it didn’t hurt that I happened to be a guy who won a state championship in high school debate. A lot of people can say, yeah, I would be proud of him if he was my son. I have my parents to thank for that.
Tell us a little about what people should expect when they read your book.The book is on the one hand, definitely an autobiography. These are the experiences that shaped who I am today. It’s also a commentary on the values that I think are important to me and how those fit into my family personally, but also this question of LGBT equality generally. It is almost a manifesto in some ways, for those of us who have LGBT parents about how we have been treated and discussed in the past, and who we are going forward.
And at the same time, I’m trying to say, I am one person with one experience and I speak only for myself. I don’t speak for my sister or my Mom.
Even though I’m not LGBT personally… I really do feel like I am a member of the community. I feel like I am at home here because I have gay parents. I’ll never fully be straight, not in the sexual sense, but in the identity sense. So I’m queer as an identity and not as an orientation. And that’s something I’m proud of.
Honestly, I look forward to not having to do this anymore. I can go back to Iowa and sit on my porch and drink whiskey and write and not worry about this anymore. I think we’re closer to that than people think.
So, you’re in school for engineering, but this kind of changes things. Are you interested in writing, activism? What now?Writing. My hunch is that I’ll go back to school and finish my degree in sustainability studies. The environment is my first passion and really was where I cut my teeth in activism work. I’ll go back to school. I want to resolve this Boy Scout thing and get this done an over with.
I’d love to work on the presidential campaign in 2016. Whoever it is.