Iowa’s Zach Wahls on activism, social media and marriage

Since the YouTube video of Zach Wahls defending his moms’ marriage in the Iowa House of Representatives went viral, Wahls has become a full-time activist, a bestselling national author and a guest on talk shows like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Daily Show with John Stewart”. Wahls will be in Chicago to speak at a Deloitte diversity event on Friday. Chicago Phoenix caught up with him earlier this week.

Chicago Phoenix: You withdrew from school last fall. What are you up to?

Zach Wahls: I withdrew from school last fall to write a book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. It’s actually a national bestseller as of last week. I’m pretty excited about that. Essentially the book and the subsequent speaking have been my attempt to use this platform that I have been given as a part of that video going viral in the most effective way that I can. This is clearly a hot button issue, and with the President’s announcement just a few weeks ago, it’s back in the news. It did seem like the right time to withdraw from school and focus on advocacy in a full-time capacity. It’s an important time for me personally and the movement generally. My credit hours aren’t going anywhere.

CP: What are you working on this week?

ZW: This woman named Jennifer Carol from Ohio was forced to resign as a den mother because she’s a lesbian. So Change.org put together a petition encouraging the Boy Scouts to reinstate her and to change their policy regarding gay leaders in the organization. As an Eagle Scout and as someone who has two lesbian parents, I wanted to make sure that I could be a part of making this happen. They asked me to deliver the petition in Orlando, Florida.

CP: Have you spent much time in Chicago before?

ZW: It’s funny. As somebody who lives in Iowa City, I’m a straight shot over on I-80. But I don’t get to Chicago as frequently as I would like. I’ve actually spent more time in New York City than in Chicago which seems a bit bizarre to me. I’ve been about a half a dozen times, big fan obviously. Gorgeous skyline and great people.

CP: Cubs or Sox?

ZW: I’m not a big baseball guy. Maybe you shouldn’t print this but I’m a huge Packers fan.

CP: You became a household name through social media. What’s your favorite social network?

ZW: Probably Reddit. It’s a great community most of the time, lots of interesting articles, and insights from the people on there. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sometimes it’s easy to get tripped up in your own self-importance. It’s all anonymous so it is basically like Whose Line – the points don’t matter. What matters is not how much clout somebody has but whether or not it’s an insightful comment.

CP: You’ve tweeted about meeting the President. Is this your most memorable moment of the past year?

ZW: That was definitely a memorable moment but I wouldn’t say it’s the most memorable. Don’t get me wrong. I love the president – I’m a big fan. But I’m a bigger fan of Jon Stewart.

CP: Your original YouTube video was recorded to speak against a proposed constitutional amendment in Iowa that would have banned same-sex marriage there. Is marriage safe in Iowa?

ZW: Currently, that amendment is defeated and it will not be taken up by the legislature. After the elections in 2012, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen. For the moment my moms are still happily married and marriage equality is still the law of the land in Iowa. My intuition is that if we can make it until 2014 then we’ll be okay. The demographics are changing. Currently about 56 percent of Iowans oppose the constitutional amendment. My hunch is that by 2014 the number will be up around 60 to 65 percent. And at that point there’s no way a constitutional amendment can pass.

CP: What does it say that Iowa has marriage and the Illinois, home to cosmopolitan Chicago still does not?

ZW: If you don’t know a lot about Iowa, that might be somewhat surprising. The fact is, though, that Iowa has a history of social progressivism. We’ve always been a forward-looking state in terms of civil rights.

CP: Do you think we’ll catch up soon?

ZW: I do expect we will see marriage equality in Illinois before too long. My hunch is that it won’t be too long before Illinois goes the way of New York State and passes marriage equality through the legislature.