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Gay marriage rights activist Zach Wahls and the son of two lesbian mothers describes his "short mom" and his "tall mom" during his talk Monday night at UND.Herald photo by John Stennes.
Gay marriage rights activist Zach Wahls and the son of two lesbian mothers describes his "short mom" and his "tall mom" during his talk Monday night at UND.Herald photo by John Stennes.

Viral YouTube video brings gay rights activist to UND

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When people find out you have two gay moms, they pretty much all ask the same questions about it, said Zach Wahls, a former university student who became famous overnight because of a three-minute YouTube video in which he spoke against a gay marriage ban.

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Speaking Monday night at UND, Wahls told about the time his high school girlfriend's mother asked him over dinner: "So, Zach, which one of your moms is the man?" Wahls said he nearly choked on his spaghetti.

"They're both women," Wahls said. "That's what lesbian means."

On Jan. 31, 2011, Wahls -- then 19 -- addressed the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in a public hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Iowa, his home state. In his three minutes of testimony, dressed in a suit and tie, he talked about his two gay moms and his sister and their life together.

"My family really isn't so different from yours," he said. "After all, your family doesn't derive its sense of worth from being told by the state, 'You're married, congratulations!' The 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."

By the next night, a video of his testimony posted on YouTube had gone viral, and he had hundreds of messages and media requests. He was asked to appear on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "The Late Show with David Letterman" and more. He recently spoke at the Democratic National Convention. To date, his YouTube video testimony has had 17 million views.

Since then, he has left his university studies to devote his time to speaking and writing.

Views changing

Dressed Monday night in dark jeans and a dark V-neck sweater with gray lace-up sneakers, Wahls talked casually about the issue of gay marriage, and the irony of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Designed to protect the sanctity of marriage, it was pushed through Congress by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich and signed by President Bill Clinton, both serial adulterers.

But times can change, he said. President Barack Obama was born in 1961, when 40 percent of U.S. states had laws against the marriage of his black father and white mother. Those laws have since been repealed.

Wahls' father was a sperm donor and Wahls said he's also often asked if he missed having male role models. His mothers may have been lesbian, but they didn't live in an all-female world.

"Somehow some people think because I have two moms I would have to look outside my family to learn about courage and discipline," he said. Those people don't know his courageous and disciplined mothers, or the women in their own families very well, he said.

Wahls recounted how in elementary school and especially in junior high, he heard the words "gay" and "faggot" frequently, because they are common slurs and insults, not because the other kids knew about his mothers. Too often, he said, he used those words himself so he could be with the popular kids.

Then, on the first day of high school, one of the first people he saw said to him: "Hey, fag, get over here." He decided he wasn't going to use those words anymore, he said. He became part of the school newspaper and wrote a column about his two mothers that garnered widespread support (and some apologies). A column he wrote for an Iowa newspaper led to his testimony before the Legislature.

Wahls told the students gathered at Memorial Union Ballroom to remember that modern technology and social networking gives them an edge for knowledge, participation and influence that no previous generation has had.

"The power we have to define and shape these moments is very special," he said.

Call Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1134; or send email to ptobin@gfherald.com.

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