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Zach Wahls continues to fight for equality

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JUNE 07, 2012 6:30 AM

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Zach Wahls felt at ease as he prepared to address his hometown fans in Iowa City.

"I've been told by a ton of kids that I'm a role model," the 20-year-old said. "And that's something I take seriously."

As Wahls, a former Daily Iowan employee, took the podium at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., on May 26, the crowd stirred. A woman wrapped her arm tightly around her partner. An elderly man drummed excited fingers over his copy of Wahls's book, My Two Moms. A teenage girl squealed in delight at the sight of Salon's 2011 runner-up for Sexiest Man in America, while her male friend commented that Wahls seemed much taller in person (the 6-5 Wahls informed them later that President Obama relayed similar sentiments when the two met earlier that month).

Wahls' journey from "average" University of Iowa student to bestselling author and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocate started Jan. 10, 2011, when he, the son of two lesbian mothers, gave a three-minute speech in front the of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee against the passage of House Joint Resolution Six.

The resolution, which would have limited marriage in Iowa to between one man and one woman, passed the House, but the full Senate did not consider the measure.

"In some ways, it had seemed like my whole life had been lived in preparation for the [testimony]," Wahls read to the Prairie Lights crowd from the first chapter of his book. "I was ready to defend my moms."

A video of Wahls' speech to House members went viral the next month, and from there, appearances on "The Ellen Show," MSNBC, "David Letterman," "The Daily Show," and others catapulted the Wahls family into the public eye.

Friend and fellow former Boy Scout Jon Swearingen said the attention Wahls has received is well-deserved.

"He is passionate about the issue of LGBT rights, but he doesn't constantly go on the offensive like a lot of activists," Swearingen said. "He focuses on showing why his view is right instead of only saying that the other person is wrong."

UI cultural anthropology Professor Ellen Lewin, who has studied LGBT issues for 35 years, said Wahls has character beyond his age, which makes his message stick.

"It is impressive that someone so young could be so very poised, articulate, and thoughtful," she said. "He is changing the national discourse, and that's all you can hope for from young people."

Wahls agreed attitudes toward LGBT rights have evolved.

"More people are coming out, and as a society, we're moving past the myths and misconceptions that have dominated the public discourse for the last 30 years," Wahls said.

He plans to lobby the Boy Scouts of America to allow LGBT leaders, to promote his new program, Out to Dinner, and to tour colleges around the country for the LGBT advocacy program One Iowa. He also hopes to return to the UI in 2013 to finish his degree in environmental engineering, and he will return to Iowa City July 14 for the annual Book Festival.

In response to his plans, one audience member at Prairie Lights asked Wahls who would play him in the movie version of My Two Moms, if there were one.

"I don't know," Wahls said. "Johnny Depp?"

As his family chuckled skeptically, he reconsidered his answer.

"Although I'm not sure he's tall enough," he said.


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