LGBT Activist Zach Wahls Asks “What Makes a Family?”

LGBT activist Zach Wahls gave a talk at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum to an audience of 5C students and faculty as well as Claremont community members this past Wednesday, Sept. 18, entitled “What Makes a Family?”

Wahls gained national recognition Jan. 31, 2011, after a YouTube video of him testifying before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee went viral. In the video, Wahls, who is the son of two lesbian mothers, proudly defends the strength of his non-normative family. 

He opened his talk with a screening of the video before going on to discuss marriage equality through his personal experiences both before and after his fame as an activist for the LGBT community.

“I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to be a part of this national conversation that we’re going through about gay marriage,” he said. “Or, as we call it in our house, marriage. We call it marriage for the same reason that my moms are not my gay moms.”

According to Wahls, the discussion of same-sex marriage is certainly not the first conversation about the definition of marriage in the U.S. He referred to how marriage historically has been based on agreements between men, race, religion, or land ownership status. Same-sex marriage is no different than any other conversation about the evolution of marriage, he said. 

Wahls emphasized his personal experience growing up with lesbian parents in order to challenge the anti-same-sex marriage argument that the lack of a mother and a father negatively impacts children. 

“’Do children deserve a mother and a father?’ is a really important question,” he said. “[However], I never felt like I was abandoned to the extent that I just never had a father figure in my life. In that respect, it was never an issue in my own home. Whatever hole or absence that there might have been was filled seamlessly by the love of my family and friends.”

According to Wahls, growing up with two mothers is objectively different than growing up with a mother and a father. However, everyone has different family configurations regardless of parents’ sexual orientation, he said. 

“At the end of the day, the question we have to ask to ourselves is not ‘Who’s better?’” he said. But rather, “Is this a safe, loving place to raise a child?”

“The biggest difference of having lesbian parents that I have been able to notice—compared to my friends with straight parents—is that I am really good at putting the seat down,” Wahls joked. “If this is the biggest difference that we have to be worried about, I think Western civilization is probably going to be okay.”

Wahls concluded his talk with a story about his mother Terry, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000. In the fall of 2006, Terry almost died of pain and was without her partner Jackie because the doctors dismissed Jackie as a friend instead of allowing her in as family.

“Recognition is the reason why we have weddings,” Wahls said. “[It is] the recognition of these two people making this promise to each other and the reason why we wear the rings. Recognition is what my story is about. According to the doctors in that emergency room, the only person who could stop Terry’s pain had to wait outside, because according to them, the rings on my parents’ fingers didn’t mean anything.”

However, Wahls added another story to demonstrate the progress that has been made for marriage equality. Recently, Terry broke her arm and was rushed to the hospital. 

“None of us were with her. Jackie [was] the first one to get [to the emergency room] and this time, 2012, Jackie was taken straight to Terry’s side,” Wahls said. “The difference, in 2012, is that the doctors recognized the rings.”

Wahls is also the founder of the civic and social organization Scouts for Equality in Iowa City and the author of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family.

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