Zach Wahls is the American dream boy package: He’s boyishly burley and talks with a Midwestern accent about the Iowan values of self-sufficiency, owning his own business and being an Eagle Scout. Oh, and by the way, he’s got two moms.
“My family really isn’t so different from yours,” he says in the video of his testimony to the Iowa House Judiciary committee that went viral this week thanks to MoveOn.org’s new anti-DOMA push. “Not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple. And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character.”
I get the politics. Goal? Marriage equality. Audience? Swing voters. Ideal messenger? Zach is the dude. It’s brilliant political communications strategy. It also haunts me. You see, just over a decade ago, I was Zach Wahls.
I had all the credentials of poster-child success. I was the pretty, figure-skating, Midwestern straight girl heading off to an Ivy League college. I too just happened to have been raised by two moms. I was a passionate ally for gay rights appearing in USA Today and on my local evening news. I was living proof that gay parents could raise healthy kids.
And then something happened. I fell in love with a girl. I promptly stopped talking publicly about being the kid of gay parents. Nobody outright told me, but I wasn’t a politically savvy messenger for the movement anymore. I had become proof of the Religious Right’s propaganda—gayness rubs off. Gay parents make gay children. The world is going to hell in a fabulously gay handbag!
This is the ethical itch of the Zach Wahls phenomenon. It circles the drain of the lowest common denominator of political rhetoric: sameness. And the lure of sameness creates new closets made by our own movement. I built my own, once upon a time. And today, nobody is talking about Zach’s sister, Zebby, who suffice it to say, bears a striking resemblance to Justin Bieber.
Let me be clear. I think Zach is an amazing kid. It takes tremendous courage to stand up and put yourself out there. But I have concerns for us as a movement that Zach is who we have picked as our poster boy. We need him politically, but have we forsaken new possibilities for politics entirely?
Just imagine if this was our poster kid: she is one of the hundreds of thousands of kids kicked out their homes after coming out as trans. She slept on the streets for months before she was adopted by a gay couple. When she tells her story on YouTube, we listen with rapt attention – but not because she affirms that we grown-up LGBTQ folks did a good job raising our kids by the standards of the heterosexist world out there (they are healthy—they are straight!).
We listen because, unlike Zach, she says the fact that she was raised by gay parents absolutely affected the content of her character (and she gives an explicit rather than appropriating nod to a movement to which gay politics is indebted, the Civil Rights Movement). She says that as much as her family deals with all the day-to-day stuff that all families do, hers is also different. Her family has worked to have their love recognized. They don’t take love for granted.
She says she learned from her adoptive gay parents that love is something you spread around in excess. You color with love outside the lines that a heterosexist, racist, transphobic, classist world prescribes. She practices BEING love in the world – and people notice and ask her why.
She says it’s because she has gay parents.
I wait for the day…