As a teenager, Zach Wahls got tired of telling his friends that, no, his two moms really weren't that "hot." But after his 2011 address to the Iowa Legislature went viral on YouTube, the 20-year-old is delving into heavier topics as he lobbies on the Hill for gay rights.
Wahls recently led a group of 100 LGBT parents and their children from 10 states to meet with more than 75 members of Congress and their staffs. The University of Iowa student decided to take time off from school to tour the country to promote his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, and advocate for LGBT-friendly legislation.
He believes his childhood serves as a positive testimony to the pro-gay-marriage platform because he is living proof that same-sex couples can raise children just as well-adjusted as their heterosexual counterparts.
Wahls said he did not realize his family was different until he was about 9 years old.
"There was one moment in fourth grade where this little girl asked me on the playground what my mom and dad did," Wahls said. "And it was kind of in that moment I realized there was an expectation that I would not be able to meet, and that was kind of a hard pill to swallow."
Wahls told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that although a friend's dad had to teach him how to shave and he is conditioned to leave the toilet seat down when not in use, the important lessons he learned growing up are identical to those straight parents strive to teach their children.
Twelve of the 14 chapters in My Two Moms are named for the virtues the Boy Scouts of America swear to uphold in their oath, including loyalty, obedience, friendliness, kindness, and bravery. In each chapter, Wahls gives an example of how his parents taught him the virtue by lesson and by example.
Loyalty, Wahls said, was instilled in him by the fact that his adopted mom did not leave his biological mom when she was wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis. They were not legally married at the time.
One piece of legislation Wahls lobbied for was the Healthy Families Act, which would allow same-sex partners the same hospital visitation rights as married couples.
The issue came to the fore for Wahls in 2006 when his biological mother was admitted to the hospital for an extreme bout of pain brought on by MS. Her partner had been by her side for more than 10 years and knew every symptom of her disease, but gay marriage was not yet legal in Iowa. To the doctor, Wahls said, "she was just the woman who brought the patient in."
He said his mother was in the worst pain of her life that night and that her partner knew stimulus would exacerbate the pain. But his mother was in too much pain to speak, so she had to endure a night she calls the most painful of her life — despite having delivered a child through emergency cesarean section without anesthesia.
Wahls said he learned the value of loyalty watching the two women stay together during the worst episodes of MS despite their lack of a legal bond. An Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage there in 2009 — though the Legislature has proposed repealing the decision — and the two women are now married.
He said his mothers' sexuality had no impact on his own; he describes himself as a "flaming heterosexual."
But his insistence on being "normal" has brought skepticism from some on the left who say he doesn't fully represent LGBT values and that his upper-middle-class background does not make him fit to speak for all children of same-sex couples.
On the right, opponents of gay marriage say Wahls is only one example of a well-adjusted child raised by same-sex parents, and that most children need both a mother and a father at home.
It is Wahls's hope that a time will come when the children of same-sex couples don't need a spokesman.
"Even though it is obviously an issue that I care about and is really topical at this point, I really hope that in 10 years you don't need someone like me out there dispelling these myths because it's part of the public zeitgeist," he said.
One person who has yet to see gay marriage as the public norm is Wahls's home-state senator, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whom Wahls met with while he was on the Hill this month.
In a statement after the meeting with Wahls, Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said: "Zach is impressive and represents his point of view well. Zach talked about his family and shared personal experiences. He and Sen. Grassley discussed foster care policies and education issues. They have a different point of view on traditional marriage."
Since his visit to Capitol Hill, Wahls has been garnering support among the Boy Scouts of America to reinstate a lesbian den leader. On Wednesday, he will deliver a petition at the Boy Scouts' annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., with 275,000 signatures against the organization's decision to ban a volunteer on the basis of sexual orientation.