Regular readers might recall that last week, I proposed marriage to a young man who stood up before the Iowa House of Representatives in a hearing about a gay marriage ban and testified about how awesome he turned out thanks to the two women who raised him. That awesome young man, Zach Wahls, did not agree to marry me – or the dozen or so other people who he tells me have made similar offers. But he did agree to be the subject of this week’s interview. I’ll take what I can get.
Wahls is a nineteen-year-old engineering student at the University of Iowa, an Eagle Scout and the new poster-child for straight allies who support marriage equality. Since the video of his testimony last week went viral, Wahls has found himself at the center of a media frenzy – you can watch him, and his mothers and sisters, here on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. As a fellow ally who supports marriage equality, I’m only too happy to have him speak for me (the fact that, like me, he’s a huge Harry Potter fan, is just nerdy icing on the social justice cake).
It was an absolute pleasure to talk to this suddenly very busy, seriously admirable young man. And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Zach Wahls.
Chloe Angyal: What made you want to get up and speak last Monday night?
Zach Wahls: I was supposed to be working that night. They announced that there was going to be this hearing on House Joint Resolution 6, and as someone who follows state politics and who cares about this issue, I knew I had to be there. I was then approached by LAMBDA Legal, which originally brought the suit, Varnum v. Brien, back in 2005, which was handed down in 2009. But I was going to be there no matter what. There was so much snow going on that week, and the roads were just so bad, but I knew I had to be there, not necessarily because my story was particularly worth telling, but because if there was anything I could do to protect marriage equality in Iowa, I was going to do it.
I’m not the only one who testified that night. I wasn’t the only one who was bearing the standard, and the response we’ve received – personally, my family, the LGBTQ community here in Iowa and across the country – something about that speech resonated with people and I think that’s a really important development in the struggle for marriage equality.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
ZW: I grew up reading Harry Potter, so Hermione is definitely a contender, but Mrs. Weasley is a bad-ass. When she said, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” in Deathly Hallows, I seriously just stopped and clapped for her.
In real life, this is going to sound really cliché, but Terry, my biological mom, is the single strongest person I have ever met. She managed to overcome a devastating autoimmune disease and literally fight her way out of a wheelchair. And not once did she ever say that it was unfair, not once did she ever wish it upon anyone else, not once did she ever demand special treatment because of her condition. She’s my biggest role model.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
ZW: Iowa House Bill 50 was a proposal by Republican legislators in the Iowa House, to allow business owners to refuse service to anyone whose personal behavior was not congruent with that owner’s religious views. It is terrifying. Luckily, it did not make it out of committee. Earlier in the week, it was not clear if that was going to be the case, and it made me want to scream. But it also made me want to shout with joy when it went down. And it wasn’t just business owners refusing clients, it was landlords refusing to rent to parents who were gay, it would have allowed employers to discriminate against a possible hire on the basis of religious incongruity, which is absolutely ridiculous, and in clear violation of the First Amendment, which I think is why it went down.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
ZW: I think the greatest challenge facing feminism is that a lot of feminists don’t realize that they are feminists. In the Zeitgeist, in American pop culture, there’s this idea that a feminist is someone who wants to take away men’s rights, which is ridiculous. I’ll never forget this: my US history teacher asked my class, when I was a senior in high school, “Who among you would identify as a feminist?” One person raised his hand. It wasn’t me, it was the kid in the classroom who was ridiculously far-left. But not a single other person in the room did. Clearly everyone supported equality of the sexes and equal rights, but still, in 2010, I can’t believe that this misconception is still out there. But the demonization of feminism continues to be probably the biggest problem facing feminism today. And if not feminist ideas, but people who identify as such.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
ZW: Indian food, orange juice and Michelle Obama.