May 9 • 9M

A Son Not So Different From Yours

The story of Iowa State Senator Zach Wahls

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Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here:
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(image: Donna Ward // Getty Contributor)

It was the last day of January in 2011 when a 19 year-old engineering student at the University of Iowa delivered remarks during a public hearing for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that was being considered by the Iowa House Judiciary Committee.

Within a few months, Gallup would release their first poll showing majority support for same-sex marriage among Americans at 53 percent, but at the time, the most recent polling stood at 42 percent. Although, for the first time, a 2009 poll commissioned by ABC News and The Washington Post found a plurality of support, there were a number of polls in the following 18 months that found a majority or plurality opposing same-sex marriage.

The legalization of same-sex marriage, state-by-state, was abysmal in that moment. Just five states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire—and D.C. had legalized, and 30 states had passed amendments banning it in some way, shape, or form; they would be joined by North Carolina the following year, making 31.

California was one of those 31 and arguably had the most painful trajectory, initially banning same-sex marriage in 2000 through voter referendum, seeing that overturned in a 4-3 decision by the state supreme court in 2008, and then reinstated by a slim majority of voters less than six months later through the now-infamous Proposition 8.

And by the way, this was more than 15 months out from then-Vice-President Joe Biden becoming the first nationally-elected official to endorse same-sex marriage.

(If you haven’t seen that yet, it’s very much worth the watch. Video below)

It’s hard to overstate how recently the entire country was immersed in heated debate over same-sex marriages and how grim the prospects looked for its realization. For many years, it seemed touch-and-go over whether the country could really put aside its reinforced ignorance over LGBTQ families.

It was into that grim environment that this brave 19 year-old waded — not the environment of the past several years, not the easy, breezy rainbow corporate logos that now pop up every June, not the confident LGBTQ characters and storylines increasingly common now in film and television, not the bursts of greater LGBTQ representation at all levels of elected office — but America in early 2011, when the tipping point on marriage equality had yet to fully arrive.

Zach Wahls, the heterosexual son of lesbian mothers, who had spent his entire childhood under the cruel microscope of homophobes, who had been bullied in school for many years after talking about his two moms, surprised to learn at an early age that his family was somehow marked different (and to many, invalid) — that 19 year-old was born into a family that loved him unconditionally and a country that grasped for excuses to hate his family and, well, Zach Wahls had something to say.

And so, that day, before a packed chamber, Zach Wahls stood tall and suited behind a lecturn, all six feet and five inches of him, left hand in his pocket, and delivered a stunning short speech about his lesbian moms that immediately went viral.

You can watch all three minutes below, but here’s one of the parts that always gets me:

“If I were your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you proud. I’m really not so different from any of your children. My family really isn’t so different from yours. After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of self-worth from being told by the state: ‘You’re married, congratulations.’ No, the sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other.”

Whew. Beautifully said, huh?

For so many years, social conservatives had run out of breath attempting to convince the country that the children of same-sex couples were at an extreme and harmful disadvantage, and yet, here was this confident and poised 19 year-old Eagle Scout telling them that he was the happy and well-adjusted child of a lesbian marriage.

This would have been an incredible speech from even a seasoned, grown adult, but coming from a college sophomore, there was an authenticity—a barely veiled pain and frustration and, yes, great pride—that centered his remarks in a way that transcended the national debate over same-sex marriage.

Four years later, the Supreme Court would make marriage equality the law of the land, and by then, Wahls had published a well-received memoir, spoken at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, fought for the successful repeal of anti-LGBTQ exclusionary policies in the Boy Scouts of America, and would go on to graduate with a bachelor’s from the University of Iowa and gain acceptance to Princeton’s MPA program.

On June 5, 2018—the same day—Wahls graduated from Princeton with his MPA and won the Democratic primary in his first bid for the Iowa State Senate, a seat he would win that fall. This was followed by reelection in 2020 and his Democratic colleagues rallying around him for minority leader shortly thereafter, making him one of the country’s youngest state-level legislative captains in recent memory.

He turned 30 last July, believe it or not.

It’s been eleven years since that galvanizing speech, and I continue to be impressed by Iowa State Senator Zach Wahls. He doesn’t back down from his values, but he also has a knack for building bridges between differing perspectives that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

I guess that’s my nice way of saying that Sen. Wahls has the patience to honorably persuade some of the more foolish and stubborn among us, an increasingly rare quality in our elected officials.

On Wednesday evening (May 11th), I’ll be co-hosting a fundraiser here in D.C. for Sen. Wahls, and I encourage folks in town to attend and meet this effective and young leader. For those who can’t attend and would like to support his reelection, you can make a standalone donation by clicking that link.

By the way, Iowa is one of those states without a cap on how much a candidate can receive from an individual donor, so, by all means, go nuts and contribute as much as you can.

As the resurgence of hateful attacks on civil rights in this country continues to grow, from the impending Supreme Court ruling on Roe to the nationwide onslaught against LGBTQ equality, it’s more important than ever to have the backs of our political leaders who have long fought in the trenches for our liberation.

Zach Wahls has been fighting all his life for people he’ll never know, and that’s why we need to fight for him.

Let’s have his back.

Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.