Having been rasied by Jackie and Terri Wahls, a lesbian couple, Zach Wahls has his fair share of family stories that he believes could resolve several misperceptions often construed upon same-sex parenthood.
Wahls, a University of Iowa student, addressed same-sex marriage and gender equality to over 100 University of South Dakota students and Vermillion community members March 18 in Aalfs Auditorium.
In 2011, Wahls testified before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee against a proposed bill which would have defined marriage between a man and a woman. A YouTube video of his impassioned testimony received over 16 million hits, and was broadcasted by several major news networks.
While speaking at the event, which was hosted by USD’s 10% Society, Wahls touched on the nature of discussion involving gender equality. The Iowan first clarified the context of the presentation, which would revolve around the concept of marriage. He believes the “gay” stigma attached often confuses the ultimate objective.
“My moms don’t live in a gay house or drive a gay car or gay park their gay cars,” he said. “My moms don’t have a rainbow flag watermark on the back of their marriage license and thats because it is not a gay marriage license; it is a marriage license.”
Wahls offered several observations he has made in the time following his testimony, which he believes prohibits progress for the discussion.
“First, this is a dialogue driven by fear. For folks like Sen. Rick Santorum, this is a conversation that is an assault on religion, his religious ideals, traditional values, traditional morality, etc. I think for him, there is a very real fear that this country is changing in a way he cannot control and that is very scary,” Wahls said.
The thought of being taken away from his parents at a young age was a real fear said Wahls.
“But there is also the fear that I have on the other side,” he said. “I remember watching Sen. Santorum speak at the 2004 Republican National Convention and listening to him talk about how dangerous it is to have gay parents. The thought occurred to me that having gay parents to him was so dangerous that the government would come in and take me away from my parents to put me in a (traditional) family. We can all agree, regardless of sexual orientation, that someone taking away our parents is a very scary idea.”
Wahls also said people fail to discuss gender equality in the proper manner. He referenced the recent Chick-fil-A debate as a prime example of lost focus.
“When we talk about these things, we don’t do it very well,” Wahls said. “When this discussion stops being positive, and we stop talking about things that matter most— family, love, recognition— we start moving backward. When we engage in the politics of fear and division and stop having a positive conversation, we will be beaten by these people who have spent their entire careers engaging in these negative politics.”
Audience reaction was generally positive, as many students reacted to Wahls’ statements with head nods and brief applause. First-year Kelsi Von Holler said she enjoyed the presentation and thought it especially encouraging as a child of same-sex parents.
“I thought it was inspirational,” she said. “I had seen his speech previously but to hear him in person was so inspiring.”
First-year Eliza Bethanly echoed Von Holler’s sentiment.
“I saw his YouTube video in speech class and that made me want to come see him in person,” she said. “His story was very inspiring to me and I loved it.”
Wahls incorporated multiple humorous references throughout the presentation. Wahls received perhaps the most resounding response when he described reaction from peers unaware of his parental situation.
“The most common question I get (from people of similar age) is ‘Dude! You have lesbian parents?!’ Then there is the inevitable follow-up of ‘Dude, are they hot?’ And then its the moment when someone just asked me if my parents are hot,” he said.