Youth Changemaker: Zach Wahls

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Why I think it is important for Kansas government officials to operate in the light of day, rather than in secret, behind closed doors: 

"After Zach’s activism for gay rights gained national attention and acclaim, Zach has become an integral leader in the march for LGBT rights and perhaps America’s most recognized youth advocate. His activism truly embodies the rising role youth are playing in bringing change to government."


- The Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council

Zach's story begins like many other teens' stories: He attended high school, played on sports teams, was active in Boy Scouts and had a stable family life.  He had a particular interest in public speaking, and took on speech coaching and debates in his spare time.

In 2011, Zach, then 19,  was an engineering student at the University of Iowa and the enterprising owner of a small business, Iowa City Learns, which provides peer tutoring services on junior high and high school subjects taught in the Iowa public school system.

But it's not just Zach's dedicated leadership to learning or his business savvy that caught the attention of the Presidential Youth Council as they weighed entries for the Top 24 Under 24 Youth Changemakers series. In fact, Zach has achieved a certain level of recognition already for something totally different.

While attending college and managing his business, Zach paid attention to the politics in his home state of Iowa. Like many others, he closely watched Iowa's stance on gay marriage—an issue particularly meaningful to him.

Zach is the son of a lesbian couple. In 2011, the state of Iowa was one of the few states with a state Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marraige. That year, officials introduced a resolution in the House (HJR6) to reverse that recognition. Zach felt such a ruling would be devastating to families, including his own, and he decided it was time to do something.

He put his debate and speech skills to work.  In January 2011, Zach publicly testified at the Iowa House of Representatives in support of equality for same-sex couples.  Little did Zach know that his testimony, prepared for the small Iowa State House, would land in the houses and offices of millions of Americans. Zach's powerful and persuasive testimony about his two mothers was captured on video and went viral on YouTube, earning 1.5 million views in just a few days. (It now stands at 2.8 million views).

Although Zach's testimony wasn't enough to sway the House, which passed the resolution, the bill ultimately died in the Senate.

Since then, Zach has been a recognizable personality in the debate around marriage equality. With his unexpected fame, Zach, now 21, has traveled around the country sharing what he calls his "boring, regular story" of growing up in family with same-sex parents. Last year, he was a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He has also made appearances on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show".

Zach has organized a national event called Out To Dinner, a dual advocacy/outreach project that aimed to build relationships between same-sex couples and those unconvinced about LGBT rights. Straight ally couples were asked to host a dinner and invite a same-sex couple and an "on-the-fence" couple for a potluck-style meal. Not to talk politics or religion, but just for a night of "food and friendship," said the campaign's invitation video.

"My friend Zach Wahls epitomizes his generation, but he also possesses a special gift," says Steve Culbertson, President and CEO of Youth Service America, who nominated Zach as a 24 Under 24 Youth Changemaker. "With his respectful rhetoric and compelling life story, he reaches into people’s hearts and minds and asks us to re-think our long-held prejudices and beliefs.  Whether it’s the issue of equality in marriage or in the Boy Scouts of America, Zach’s pursuit of the American ideal of fairness has changed the world forever."

Following his testimony and media tour, Zach published a book, My Two Moms, which aims to lift the stigma surrounding parents' sexual orientation. In the book, he speaks to the politics of gay marriage but also, as the book's cover describes: 

"... a broader issue. Sure, he’s handsome and athletic, an environmental engineering student, and an Eagle Scout. Yet, growing up with two moms, he knows what it’s like to feel different and to fear being made fun of or worse. In the inspirational spirit of the “It Gets Better” campaign, My Two Moms also delivers a reassuring message to same-sex couples, their kids, and anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.

As a former Eagle Scout, Zach has also poured his efforts into advocating for scout- and leader-equality in the Boy Scouts by founding and directing the national organization Scouts for Equality, through which he still leads national advocacy to end the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policies.

"It's important to take into consideration the voice and views of young people, as, over the long run, we are the people most affected by public policy," says Zach. "It's an honor to be named one of the 24 Changemakers Under 24, and it's a powerful testament to both of my parents and the values they instilled in me."

Learn more about Zach on his website and watch the video that brought him national attention:


 


This profile is one of the Top 24 Under 24 Youth Changemakers, a series hosted by SparkAction and the Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council to recognize young changemakers influencing policy and practice at the local, state and national levels.

The members of the youth-led Campaign chose the 24 youth who are featured in this series, from entries submitted by peers and mentors.

We’re always looking for more profiles of young people making a difference, so submit one of your own!