When I spoke a few weeks ago with Zach Wahls, the 20 year-old college student who appeared before the Iowa House in February and eloquently stood up for same sex marriage (and become a Youtube sensation), he was about to join the line for the midnight opening of the final Harry Potter film.
“I’m going as Oliver Wood,” he said enthusiastically. He was back home in Iowa City after a five-month whirlwind of nationwide speaking engagements and clearly relishing the prospect of going back to Hogwarts.
When I asked him if he could relate to Harry’s battles to defend himself and his family’s honor against Lord Voldemort and the forces of darkness, Wahls said absolutely. Then he recited Stephen King’s quote about the series.
“‘Harry Potter’ is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what’s right in the face of adversity. ‘Twilight’ is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”
As it happens, Zach Wahls is a case study in doing what’s right in the face of adversity. In February, Wahls stood in the state legislature as Republicans attempted to pass a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage and laid out the case for marriage equality. Wahls is the son of Terry Wahls and Jacqueline Reger two lesbians who were married in 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, so the proposed amendment posed a concrete threat to his family.
“My family isn’t so different than any other Iowan family,” Wahls told the legislature. “We go to church together. We eat dinner. We go on vacations…. We’re Iowans. We’ll fight our own battles. We just expect equal and fair treatment from our government.”
Wahls’ impassioned speech is nearing two million views on Youtube and made him a hero to millions of people struggling for LGBT rights across America. As a result of that exposure he’s been crisscrossing the country over the last five months speaking to groups of every sort, from Ellen Degeneres’ audience to the Human Rights Campaign to Best Buy.
After watching Wahls’ Youtube speech or hearing him in person, it’s easy to see what so many people are responding to. When you watch and listen to him speak, you’re struck not just by the principles he stands up for but also the energetic and enthusiastic way he’s able to articulate them.
He has an infectious optimism and, unlike another Iowan in the news these days, he doesn’t conjure up a nostalgic and imagined past. Wahls speaks of how America is now and where we’re going. He seems to embody Lincoln’s mythic American ideal of “the better angels of our nature.”
Watch the home movie Wahls shot for us during his travels this summer:
Despite major recent victories in the marriage equality movement, Wahls is realistic about the many hurdles that remain. He points out that only a handful of states grant marriage or even civil union status to gays and lesbians and his family feels that imbalance acutely.
“If we go on vacation to Florida – when we step on the flight, my moms are married. When we step off in Florida, they’re not.”
And there are enough demagogic, gay-bashing politicians running for president to give him pause. Speaking of public figures and fellow Hawkeye like Michele Bachmann and Bob Vander Plaats, who’ve devoted much of their careers to gay-bashing, Wahls said: “It isn’t shocking to me but it says a lot about these two people and about where social conservatism is in Iowa.”
But Wahls is hopeful. After all, the amendment Wahls was opposing in February passed the House but Democratic State Senators have vowed to block it in their chamber, which they control. We spoke just days before New York became the latest state to issue marriage certificates to same sex couples and Wahls cites a string of national polls which show pluralities and in some cases majorities support gay marriage. “It shows social conservatism is starting to dwindle,” Wahls said.
Asked if those around him knew he was destined to become one of the leading spokespeople for civil rights, Wahls is modest and circumspect.
“My best friend has always thought something like this would happen,” he trailed off, slightly uncomfortable “I guess he was right.”
“My freshman year in college was the first time I talked about my family,” he said. But by his senior year, he was writing about his family and LGBT rights for the Des Moines Register.
By the end of our talk, Wahls had pivoted from the fight for marriage equality to what he sees as one of the other key social battles of 21st Century: “The struggle for ecological rights is the civil rights struggle of my generation,” he said. “The ability to live on a planet with a stable climate and access to clean air and water will become the defining issues of the 21st Century.”
After brilliantly linking two civil rights movements, we wrapped up our conversation and Wahls was off to put on his Oliver Wood costume and join his friends in the “Deathly Hallows” line.
But I couldn’t help feeling that Wahls was dressing up as the wrong character. When J.K. Rowling set out to write her epic wizard series, I’m guessing Zach Wahls, with his tenacity, passion and idealism, would pretty much embody everything she wanted Harry to be.