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When The Political Becomes Very Personal


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we know that minorities have been hard hit by the effects of the recession in everything from employment to foreclosure rates. There's a new office within the agency that's been charged with looking out for consumers that's supposed to take a look at how financial practices affect minorities and women. We'll speak with the new head of that office in just a few minutes.

But first to the issue of marriage equality, which has been in the news of late. Vice President Joe Biden attracted headlines with comments he made recently suggesting he now supports same-sex marriage and citizens of several states are taking up the issue again. But if there's one moment in this ongoing debate that seems to have captured the nation's attention, it was this one.


ZACH WAHLS: In my 19 years, not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple. And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: That was University of Iowa student Zach Wahls, whose remarks before Iowa lawmakers urging them not to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions became an Internet sensation. In the years since that speech, Zach Wahls has taken a break from college to travel the country advocating for same-sex marriage rights, and he recently penned a book, "My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family."

And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

WAHLS: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Michel. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: When did you realize that this had become a thing?

WAHLS: There were a few different moments that kind of led me to that realization and that decision to really be there that night. You have to remember, this is back in January 2011. This is on the tail-end of that string of suicides that began September of 2010 with the death of Tyler Clementi out in New York City and sparked a number of suicides that unfortunately led to the deaths of dozens of young gay and lesbian kids.

There was also the fact that in November of 2011, Iowans voted out of office the three Supreme Court justices who were up for what's called a retention vote in the state. And then after that there was this push by Iowa Republicans in the House to pass this constitutional amendment, HJR6, which they like to dress up in this cloak of democracy and letting the people vote, but what was in reality an attempt to, in the first time in the history of the state of Iowa, codify discrimination into the law of the land.

And there was - kind of understanding, you know, the impacts that those would have on me and my family and other kids who have gay parents, it was like, OK, you have to stand up and you have to say something. And given the opportunity, it was one that I wasn't going to pass up.

MARTIN: So when did you realize that your testimony had had that kind of impact? I mean, it's become a cliche but it literally did go viral. I mean, there were more than - it was downloaded more than two million times like in a matter of days.

WAHLS: Yeah. So, yeah. In the first...

MARTIN: So when did you realize it had become an Internet sensation, as we said?

WAHLS: Yeah. Well, in the first week it got a million hits and by the end of the year had about 20 million hits and was the number one political video of 2011 on YouTube. And the moment of realization that I had when I realized that something big was kind of about to happen was actually when I got a Facebook message from an ex-girlfriend of mine who said that she had seen the video on Perez Hilton's website.

And I'm not like a huge pop culture guy but I knew that that was a big deal. That was, you know, kind of the moment where I had this, like, oh wow, this is about to blow up. And then 10 minutes later I was talking with a producer from "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

MARTIN: What is it that you think people are responding to?

WAHLS: You know, whatever the stereotype of two lesbians raising kids is, you know, a clean-cut engineering student, Eagle Scout, entrepreneur from Iowa probably isn't that stereotype. There was a lot of kind of shock factor in that, but more to the point, I think a lot of people, and when you watch the video you really do see the love and the commitment that I have for and to my family.

And I think a lot of people connected with that because it reminded them of their own love and their own commitment that they have for their own family.

MARTIN: The book is organized - you mention that you're an Eagle Scout.

WAHLS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Congratulations, by the way.

WAHLS: Thank you.

MARTIN: That's the highest rank that you can attain in the Boy Scouts. And it's organized along the kind of - each chapter is one of the values that the Boy Scouts teaches or hopes to impart.

WAHLS: That's right.

MARTIN: And one of the things that you talk about in the book is how your moms, just by the fact that they're two moms, did prepare you and helped prepare you to be the man that you are today. Could you talk just a little bit about that?

WAHLS: Yeah. So each chapter is named after one of the tenets of the Scout law, one of the most important pieces of scouting lore. So trustworthy, loyal, helpful - and there are 12 of these values. And so my moms, every night around the dinner table, my sister and I, and them included, would have to share an example of that night's value.

And the fact is that when it comes to raising kids, the important thing isn't whether or not you have a parent who is a male and a parent who is a female; the more important thing is whether or not you have a parent or parents who is or are willing to put in the effort that it takes to instill good values into your kids. And I think, you know, this is the 21st century, we can all agree that there's nothing inherently masculine about courage or discipline.

And there's nothing inherently feminine about kindness or respect. These are universal values that define not necessarily a good man or a good woman but a good person. And that is a lesson for which I'm very, very grateful to have learned from my moms.

MARTIN: There is also the element of parental sacrifice and there is the fact that the Boy Scouts of America have fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to, if local chapters so choose, to keep gay people from being Scout leaders. How did that go when you went to tell the moms that you wanted to become a Boy Scout?

WAHLS: It's not just gay people either, Michel. It's also atheists. Nobody doubts that the Boy Scouts of America have this right. They certainly do have the right to do so, but right to do so and whether or not they should do so is another question altogether. I mean, when I ran home from kindergarten that day really wanting to join the Tiger Cubs, the very lowest level of the totem pole, they were initially, I think, a little taken aback, but it also made sense.

You know, they spent a lot of time outdoors themselves and so it made sense, I think, to them that I wanted to spend time outdoors. And so they were very open and very honest with the Cub Scout pack when they went to that first meeting and said, look, here's who we are, we're not going to pretend to be something we're not. Is this a problem?

And I think the Cub Scouts appreciated that openness and that honesty and they said, nope, as long as you're not causing any problems, and they didn't, we don't have a problem. And so not only did they not have a problem, when they needed another adult leader, a den mother, Jackie, my short mom, volunteered, and actually became one of the most revered den mothers of the entire pack.

And then when they needed an interim pack master while they looked for a new long-term replacement, Terry, my tall mom, stepped in and was that interim pack master. And what I took away from that example was after you actually sit down and you get to know people like my mom and you have this face-to-face conversation, it becomes much, much more difficult to discriminate against them, once you learn that, you know, they really are interested in the same thing as you.

MARTIN: Yeah, that seems to be, in part, what the vice president was saying. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Zach Wahls. His new book is called "My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family." You might remember him because his testimony before an Iowa state legislative committee became an Internet sensation a little more than a year ago.

And he's written a book about that experience and what happened after. I mentioned that Vice President Joe Biden grabbed headlines this weekend for some comments that he made. Here is what he had to say.


VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying - all are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.

WAHLS: I mean, over the last three years Vice President Biden has been a surrogate for the president and gone to a number of these dinners and so it's a well-known fact that he has met a lot of same-sex parents and their kids. You know, it's also very important for your listeners to remember that this is the very same vice president who, in 2008, during the vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin, stood on that stage and told the moderator that he and President Obama were publicly opposed to same-sex marriage.

So this is an incredible development, really, in terms of where the Obama administration falls on this issue. And I would not be surprised to see the Obama administration publicly announce support for same-sex marriage before the convention.

MARTIN: There are people who truly, and apparently with integrity, do believe that same-sex relationships are against nature, against God, that nothing good can really come of something that is against nature. What do you say? What do you do with that?

WAHLS: There's no doubt that they have the right to hold that opinion. But when we have these conversations, I - you know - try to stay courteous. I try to make sure that, if they have a sincere question, that I answer it and that I'm willing to be up front with them about who I am and what my own biases are and really, you know, talk it out.

I think there is a very fundamental misunderstanding between a lot of folks in that community, specifically, who are opposed to same-sex marriage and people in the LGBT community.

MARTIN: Who do you hope will read this book?

WAHLS: There were really two audiences that I kept in mind while I was writing. The first was other kids who have same-sex parents and I wanted to make sure that, you know, I was speaking to them as a peer, that I was coming from a place where I could explain a little bit more about not just my situation, but the situation of kids like us, generally.

And the second audience that I wrote the book for - and this was one of the reasons why I organized the book like I did - was for people who are still on the fence, people who think, well, you know, it's a free country. I'm certainly not going to, you know, try and infringe upon the right of a gay person, but raising kids? It makes me uncomfortable.

And so, to that person, I wanted to answer a lot of the questions that they have. More broadly, you know, I wrote the book in very respectful, very careful language. That's something that I kind of disclose at the very beginning of the book - is like, look, if you are an adamant supporter of same-sex marriage, this book isn't going to change your mind, but if you're willing to come to this issue with an open mind and a reasonable level of skepticism of both sides, then I think that I'm willing to answer the questions you're going to have.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

WAHLS: I'm also working on a project that I'm very excited about and it's called Out To Dinner and, essentially, what we're doing is we are inviting straight ally couples to host dinners to which they invite both a same-sex couple and somebody who's still kind of on the fence - those people that I was just talking about - and get together and just have dinner. Not talk about politics or religion or the gay issue, even, but to really just get to know each other and start building some relationships.

MARTIN: What do you feel that that will accomplish?

WAHLS: I think, by building these relationships and really getting to know people on a person-to-person level instead of some of these labels that get tossed around, we'll be able to move the conversation beyond, you know, this notion that there are some things that are, you know, inherently wrong, some of the things that you mentioned at the very beginning of the segment, that there are these problems with gay people, problems with raising gay kids and really kind of get into the heart of the matter, which is about marriage and it's about, you know, respect and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

MARTIN: One more question for you. I read in the book that you learned to tie a tie from an article in Playboy. Really?

WAHLS: That's right.

MARTIN: You really picked up Playboy for the article on...

WAHLS: That's...

MARTIN: ...tying a tie?

WAHLS: Well, I didn't pick it up to learn how to tie a tie.


WAHLS: But it was definitely something I knew when I put it down.

MARTIN: I just wanted to clarify that. Zach Wahls wrote about his family in his new book, "My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family," and he joined us today from NPR member station WCQS in Ashville, North Carolina.

Zach, thanks so much for joining us.

WAHLS: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And will you please wish your moms a Happy Mother's Day from us?

WAHLS: Happy Mother's Day, Jackie and Terry. I love you guys both very, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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