Zach Wahls, author of the new book My Two Moms, likely needs no introduction to many readers. The former University of Iowa student burst into national fame in 2011 when his speech before the state House Judiciary Committee hearing on marriage equality went viral on YouTube—not once, but twice: in February and November 2011. In the speech, he famously said that his mothers’ sexual orientation has had no effect on the content of his character.
Now, the civil rights activist, speaker, and entrepreneur has expounded at greater length on just how his mothers have influenced his character.
My Two Moms (written in partnership with author Bruce Littlefield), “is a response to all those who say I am ‘different’” because of having two moms, Wahls writes. His main audience is thus people outside the LGBT community—but those within it will also find much inspiration in his words. Wahls weaves stories of his childhood and family together with reasoned arguments in favor of lesbian and gay equality. It is a memoir with a healthy dose of social justice—or an argument for social justice backed by deep personal experience.
He wrote the book thinking about a young boy with two moms whom he once met at an event for LGBT families. He says, “Knowing the challenges that little boy will face—that we’re still not at a point when he can live a childhood untouched by fear and unsullied by hate—breaks my heart. This book is for him.”
He begins by saying that he doesn’t expect to convince every reader to accept gay families or same-sex marriage. He simply wants to tell the story of his family and its values. It is a disarming approach that sets the tone for the whole book—encapsulated by his assertion, “We are more alike than we are different.”
Wahls is an Eagle Scout—the highest rank of the Boy Scouts of America—and structures each of his chapters around one of the Scouts’ core values: Be Prepared, Do a Good Turn Daily, and A Scout Is: Obedient, Trustworthy, Kind, Friendly, Reverent, Helpful, Courteous, Cheerful, Loyal, Clean, Thrifty, and Brave. He shows how his moms taught him those values, and explains how each one supports an attitude of acceptance, equality, and being true to oneself.
Given the Boy Scouts’ policy of not allowing gay Scouts or Scout leaders, Wahls’ use of the Scouting ideals, not to mention his participation in Scouting in the first place, may seem misplaced. Wahls notes, however, that his family was “welcomed with open arms” by the local troop. His mom Jackie served as a den leader, and his mom Terry as an interim Cubmaster.
And showing how his lesbian moms instilled in him the same values that the Boy Scouts themselves cherish is in fact a stroke of rhetorical brilliance, demonstrating why he once won the Iowa state debate championship.
But the book is more than a lecture on values. Wahls gives us a moving and sometimes humorous profile of his family, starting with how his biological mom (then single) conceived him. He then shares how his moms met, and moves on to dinnertime conversations, sports, school, dealing with bullies (and avoiding becoming one himself), learning to shave from a friend’s dad, becoming an Eagle Scout, the impact of national and state events on his family, and, most poignantly, his mom Terry’s battle with multiple sclerosis.
Despite his fervent support of LGBT equality, Wahls expresses compassion towards those with differing views. He urges us to get to know them as individuals, rather than simply labeling them all “hateful” or “bigot” and turning away. Otherwise, he says, we can never engage with or understand each other.
At the same time, he is not above jabs at certain opponents of equality. For example, he notes that when he became an Eagle Scout, the Scoutmaster revised a traditional portion of the ceremony that acknowledges the Scout’s father. Instead, he acknowledged both of Wahls’ moms. His mom Terry, struggling with multiple sclerosis, then summoned all her strength to get out of her wheelchair and stand by Jackie while Wahls presented them with pins. “Mitt Romney once wrote that it’s the mothers who make the Eagles…. [My moms] had stood with me throughout my journey, loyally supporting and encouraging me when I needed it most.” Wahls notes. Point made.
Wahls ends the book with a section demonstrating his formal debating skills as applied to the question of same-sex marriage. It’s the least personal part of the book, but one of the most thorough eviscerations of arguments against marriage equality I’ve ever seen, short of the Prop 8 hearings over California’s marriage ban.
My Two Moms is an engaging portrait of a young man coming of age. With its unthreatening, personable tone and an underpinning of the best kind of persuasive rhetoric, it is the perfect book to act as a bridge between LGBT families and those who aren’t so sure about us. Both groups can learn much from it.
Wahls cautions, however, that “I am not like all kids with two moms, and not all kids with two moms are like me.” He may have shouldered the responsibility of being a spokesperson for LGBT families, but—showing his character once again—he knows the limits of that role. Still, he is likely to remain a leading and welcome voice in our movement towards equality.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog for LGBT parents.