On Wednesday night, Zach Wahls, a prominent activist in the LGBTQ community, spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Wahls, the son of two lesbian mothers, is recognized for his outspoken stance in favor of gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, such as homosexual membership within Boy Scouts of America.

Zach Wahls with his two moms, Jackie and Terry, in their home in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday, March 18, 2012. (Jenn Ackerman for People Magazine)
Zach Wahls with his two moms, Jackie and Terry, in their home in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday, March 18, 2012. (Jenn Ackerman for People Magazine)

Wahls’s rise to fame stemmed from an address he made on January 31, 2011 to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, where he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. A video of his speech was subsequently uploaded to YouTube and went viral on social media, garnering a total of 17,465,521 views to date. As a 19-year-old at the time, Wahls had never before talked about his family so candidly. Within two days, however, Wahls landed guest spots on ABC, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Wahls’ Athenaeum talk yesterday, titled “What Makes a Family?”, drew upon some pinnacle moments in his life that contributed to his role as a LGBTQ activist and investigated the diverse structures of what constitutes a family.

He called upon the commitment ceremony between his moms, Terry and Jackie, in 1996 as a special, significant moment in his early life that signifies a clarifying example of how far we have come over the years. In 1996, no states accepted gay marriage. Today, 13 states have legalized same-sex marriage.

Regarding the Iowa House address, Wahls commented on how “overwhelming” and “privileged” he felt in the aftermath of the speech. In a day, over 500 e-mails and 700 Facebook messages flooded his inbox. The magnitude of responses he received inspired him to engage in the national conversation regarding LGBTQ issues as an activist.

Wahls has since spoken at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, founded the nonprofit organization Scouts for Equality to target homophobia in Boys Scouts of America, and authored My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. Wahls is now completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa.

When asked what the relationship he has had with his sperm donor, Wahls explained that he was conceived from artificial insemination and knows very little about his biological father. Said Wahls, “I know he’s tall, likes to play golf, and studied tax law at Georgetown, but I have no desire to meet him.” He never felt like he was abandoned by his father and has adequate support from both his mothers, both of whom have developed his courage, strength, and discipline. His male role models have ranged from scout leaders in Boy Scouts of America, his uncles and grandparents, as well as fathers of friends.

“What matters the most to develop a family are those who are capable of the blood, sweat, toil, and tears that it takes to support and cultivate a child,” said Wahls. While his experience with lesbian parents has been certainly different from traditional families, it is no different from the variety of experience between families with straight parents or extended families.

One of the most moving aspects of his speech was a poignant story he explained regarding his birth mother Terry, who was diagnosed in 2000 with multiple sclerosis, a devastating autoimmune disease. While his other mother Jackie knew exactly what treatment was necessary to mitigate Terry’s pain during a particularly bad episode of pain in 2007, Jackie was not allowed to go into the operating room with her partner. Consequently, Terry underwent a MRI scan that magnified her level of pain to unbearable levels, ten times worse than the c-section she went through, without morphine, for Zach’s sister. Wahls explained that “many take for granted the ability to be with and care for someone they love.”

Wahls left the audience with a piece of advice on how to deal with opposition to the LGBTQ cause: “Never give up. Never surrender.”

Zach Wahls’s visit was jointly sponsored by the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum and the Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children.