By Travis Gulbrandson
When 19-year-old college student Zach Wahls testified about being raised by two lesbian mothers during a public hearing on Iowa’s proposed gay marriage ban in 2011, he had no idea he would end up a major participant in a national conversation.
But after appearances on most of the major TV networks, a memoir and more than 17 million Youtube hits, that is exactly what happened.
Wahls visited the USD campus one week before the United States Supreme Court began its deliberation of two gay marriage cases – involving Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act – to discuss his experience.
“I still feel blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of a national conversation about one of the most contentious political issues of our time, the question, of course, of gay marriage,” Wahls said. “Or, as my family and I call it, ‘marriage.’”
During his address at Aalfs Auditorium on the USD campus, Wahls pointed out that this is not the first time the United States has found itself faced with questions regarding who can and cannot get married.
“A long time ago in this country, it was illegal to marry someone with a different land ownership status, or of a different religion, and it really wasn’t so long ago in this country that it was still illegal to marry someone of a different race,” he said.
While Wahls acknowledged those issues are not the same as the one currently being discussed in Washington, the do have something in common: They first became socially acceptable, and then became legally recognized.
Wahls said he has made three main observations regarding the issue over the past two years.
The first is that the dialogue is driven in large part by fear, he said.
“According to Sen. Rick Santorum, this is conversation that is about an assault on religion,” he said. “It’s an assault on tradition, on traditional morality, on family values, on church, on religious ideas and beliefs.
“For him, this country is changing in a way that he cannot control, and that’s very scary,” he said.
However, there is fear on the other side, as well.
Wahls said he realized for the first time that there was opposition to families like his when he saw Santorum’s speech on television during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
He was in eighth grade at the time, and said it was frightening to hear someone speak about gay parenting having “dangerous” connotations.
Wahls said his second observation is that when people are scared, they have a tendency to use labels.
An example of this would be the controversy over the Chick-fil-A restaurant, whose CEO came out with statements supporting “traditional” marriage.
“If you supported Chick-fil-A, according to the other side, you were an ignorant, bigoted, homophobic redneck, and if you opposed Chick-fil-A, you were a godless, colonizing sodomite who would not stop until America had been destroyed,” Wahls said. “There really wasn’t a whole lot of room in the middle.”
However, Wahls said the middle is where a lot of people actually find themselves.
“When we talk about these things, like chicken sandwiches or accusing people of being certain things, we don’t do very well. When this conversation stops being positive, we stop talking about the things that really matter most: Family, love, recognition. When we stop talking about these things, we start moving backwards.”
That is the third observation: The importance of positivity.
“When we pull down that level, when we stop having a positive conversation, we will be beaten by people who spend their entire careers engaging in negative politics,” he said. “That isn’t what this is about. This is about recognition for all people, regardless of who they are.”