When 19-year-old college student Zach Wahls gave a brief personal testimony to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee opposing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, he had no idea a video of his speech would go viral, becoming YouTube’s top political video of 2011. It’s since been viewed more than 17 million times. Zach landed in the national spotlight and his advocacy story—an Eagle Scout raised by a lesbian couple—has spread rapidly. You may have seen him talking to Letterman, Jon Stewart or Ellen about his book My Two Moms. Or you may have heard his voice, as founder of Scouts for Equity, in the national conversation around LGBT rights and the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay youth and parents.
Active in high school speech and debate, Zach was no stranger to public speaking when he appeared at the Iowa House. But it was the first time he stood up and told his personal story, taking that important step all advocates take as they enter the public sphere. We talked to Zach this month about what drove him to speak out, about his quick rise to being a high-profile public advocate, and the challenges and rewards he’s experiencing.
Living Proof: People may think of your Iowa House speech as the start of you telling your story publically as an advocate, but it really began with you writing articles for your high school paper. Do you remember when you made that decision to speak out, when you said to yourself: I’ve got to write about this. I’ve got to come forward?
Zach Wahls: Yeah, there’s a very vivid memory—when I walked into my high school, the first day of my freshman year. The very first thing I heard was some kid yelling at another kid: Hey faggot, get over here! I’m not sure what I was expecting from high school. I guess I assumed that the kids in high school would be more mature than the kids in junior high. I was very sorely mistaken in that respect, as anybody who has ever been through high school can tell you. To be clear, the yelling wasn’t aimed at me or any of my friends, but … that was, for me, the beginning of my realization that I would have to say something.
I’d always known that our families were ostracized—especially after watching Rick Santorum speak at the 2004 Republican National Convention—but I had not understood that I would have a role, personally, and I would need to respond to that. But again, I thought, This isn’t okay, somebody has to say something.
It took me a couple of months to find the courage to actually do so, to be able to cite that first experience and to actually write about my family.
Living Proof: And then you spoke about it, the video went viral, and you’ve been in a whirlwind ever since: appearing in national and local media, speaking on campuses and in high schools, addressing the Democratic National Convention. How are you managing the transition into the public sphere?
Zach Wahls: I needed to build a really good community around me, which includes family and friends and coworkers and people who share my world views—but also who challenge my world views. Having a good ecosystem of people around you and in place to have those conversations is really important.
I’ve logged hundreds of thousands of miles in the last two and a half years. There was a 60-day stretch last fall where I was home for a total of 100 hours—and not a consecutive 100 hours. This spring was crazy. So traveling and being away from friends and family is part of why having that community has been so important. People who I can engage with, either face-to-face when I’m home in Iowa City, or people I know will answer my phone call or respond to my text. Those people have been very, very important to me. My sister sends me postcards, and that’s been a real source of nourishment.
You need a work-life balance. It’s so easy, especially for people who are passionate about making a difference in the world, to just work and work and work yourself. But being able to set time aside and go through that process of personal restoration, whatever that looks like for an individual, that’s very, very important. Luckily, I’ve been able to do that.
Living Proof: Many advocates tell us that they are often surprised by what they encounter when they speak out. What have you been surprised by?
Zach Wahls: When it comes to being an advocate for LGBT issues, for so many of us, it all seems so obvious, so matter of fact. So it’s often hard for me to understand why somebody would find so much importance or validation in what I have to say about something that really, to me, was just everyday life growing up.
That continues to surprise me. But the reason I’m willing to travel so much—to get up at 4:00 a.m. to catch that 5:30 flight—is because of the positive difference that it makes in people’s lives. I don’t think you can get that kind of response in any other kind of work. Oh, I’m sure Steve Jobs got to see people’s eyes light up when they used an iPhone or an iPad, but I can’t even tell you what the emotion is that I see in some people, the positive response that this kind of work can animate. It’s something special, for sure.
And that’s been true for me since day one, insofar as I didn’t even realize that that original video was being recorded, I didn’t realize that it was going to be uploaded to YouTube, obviously had no idea that it would go viral. That kind of thing is totally unpredictable. Frankly, at this point, when I get surprised by things, it’s almost not surprising. You see that the world is so unpredictable, and at some point you kind of just throw up your hands and say, That’s fine, I’ll play it as it comes.
Living Proof: What advice would give someone who’s at that moment you were just a few years ago, saying, I have to go public, I have to share what I know and make a difference?
Zach Wahls: You have to go for it. I mean, we’ve all heard Wayne Gretzky’s saying: You miss 100% of the shots you never take. When it comes to the kind of disproportionate impact that a single individual can have on society, we all just have to understand that these big changes are the results of little things—at first. It is so easy to not write that talk and give that speech. It’s so easy to not pick up the phone and call that reporter and talk about what just happened. But when you can find the moral fortitude and the constitution to do so … it’s difficult to overstate the potential upside, the positive that can happen.
Even if you, personally, don’t make the changes you want to see, you can inspire others who will get it done. I view that as my highest charge—especially when I speak at college campuses, or like I did just this afternoon, to high school students. A lot of people sometimes just need to hear that it’s okay to speak up, that it’s okay to have that opinion and to share it. If I can let people know that and inspire them to go out and do it, I’ve done my job. For sure.
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