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YouTube star with two moms brings book tour to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2012 - Even before Zach Wahls of Iowa City became famous, he had to field a lot of questions.

One of the worst was: “Dude, are your two moms hot?” That uncomfortable high school locker-room query and other such interrogations, along with his senior-year debate experience, were scant preparation for a life he leads now.

Thanks to YouTube, Wahls, 20, is now a veteran of TV shows including “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “CBS This Morning” and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and is criss-crossing the country to talk about his family. His “My Two Moms” book tour is coming to Left Bank Books’ downtown location on Thurs., May 3.

A year and a half ago, Wahls was just a University of Iowa environmental engineering student who happened to have two moms. But his appeal before an Iowa House committee to keep same-sex marriage legal (they did) catapulted him to fame after a video of his speech went viral. In it, Wahls emphasized the similarities -- not the differences -- between his and other families.

“A sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other: to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us; that’s what makes a family,” Wahls told the lawmakers.

His words have made him the most famous child of lesbians since the release of the fictional “Heather HasTwo Mommies” in 1989. Wahls’ rise to prominence and the ways in which it’s changed his life are among the topics he spoke about in an interview with the Beacon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How soon after your speech did you enter the public spotlight?

Wahls: I gave the speech on a Monday night, Jan. 31. And the next morning, on Tuesday, there was a big article in the state’s biggest newspaper about the hearing. I was mentioned in one paragraph and that was it, and that was awesome -- that’s exactly what I thought would happen.

Then on Wednesday, the next day, I woke up to about 300 emails in my in-box and a dozen missed calls -- from numbers I’d never seen before. It hits me that this video is starting to go viral when I get a call from the CBS early show.

Then I was approached by two literary agents and I was like, “Are you crazy? I’m 19 years old.” But they saw a story, and as a family we had to sit down and talk this through. By this point, I’d gotten so many emails and letters from people who’d seen the video and found strength and inspiration or a new perspective in my words. So I thought, “Wow -- I wonder what kind of impact I could have with a book?”

Could you elaborate about what kinds of responses have meant the most to you?

Wahls: One of the first messages was a Facebook message from a guy just a few years older than me, who, at the time was a week away from shipping out to Afghanistan. He told me he had been raised anti-gay in the deep South and had always been opposed to gay marriage.

He goes on to say that he watched the video and it totally changed his mind on marriage equality. Also “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had just been repealed at that point and he’d been nervous about serving alongside gay servicemen and he said it totally allayed his fears about that as well.

That was when I realized, “Wow, there is a resonance to this story; there’s something kind of magical here going on,” and it’s been really incredible being part of that.

What has your parents’ reaction been?


Wahls: They’re very proud. They like to joke that they would have been happy for me still just to see them once a week for dinner, let alone give a testimony in which I defend them passionately in the No. 1 YouTube political video of 2011. They’re like, “We’re pretty happy about the whole thing.”

Everybody we know has been very supportive. But it’s inevitable when you put yourself out there in a public setting, you're going to have some blowback from people who don’t know us. There have been some threats but nothing serious; I haven’t felt like I was in imminent danger.

Do you have any siblings and what do they think about this turn of events?

Wahls: I have one younger sister who’s 17. She told me that the first thing she thought after watching the video is, “Oh my God -- that’s awesome,” and her second thought was, “Oh my God, I hope nobody expects me to do that.”

This is not something she signed up for and I’m doing my best to keep her out of the limelight. To be quite frank, she’s part of why I’m doing what I’m doing, because growing up is hard enough without having to answer all of these incessant questions about having LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] parents. I’d like to answer those questions for kids who have LGBT parents in some meaningful capacity and that’s why I’m here.

Do you still plan on becoming an engineer?

Wahls: I am planning on getting my environmental engineering degree. That’s not to rule out politics as an option; it’s something I’ve been thinking about and have been told to think about more. But at this point, my focus is renewable energy.

I stayed in school through that semester [after the speech]. Then I went back home and realized that this is something I have to be a part of. This is such an important time for LGBT rights, so this past fall, I decided to take some time off.

I’ll probably go back to school in the fall of 2013, but at this point it’s kind of hard to say for sure. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that the future is incredibly hard to predict. As awesome as it has been to have this opportunity, I’m very conscious about the fact it’s not going to be around forever.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.