Gay Marriage Defense on YouTube Disrupts “Boring” Life
By REID FORGRAVE
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa – A 19-year-old man stepped to the podium at the Iowa House of Representatives chamber Monday night, the fourth person to speak at the public hearing on same-sex marriage.
Just about every Iowa elected representative jammed the House chamber, and the public galleries spilled over: Proponents of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage wore red, opponents wore blue.
His hands shaking, the young man clicked the timer on his iPod – the former Iowa high school debate champion knew he couldn’t go over his allotted 3 minutes – and began to speak.
“Good evening, Mr. Chairman,” he said. “My name is Zach Wahls. I’m a sixth-generation Iowan and an engineering student at the University of Iowa, and I was raised by two women.”
What followed was one man’s impassioned, personal take on why lawmakers should vote against a state House resolution that would amend the Iowa Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. With some, the plea clearly struck a chord. A video of Wahls’ speech – which came in at 3 minutes on the nose – went viral, surpassing a half million hits on YouTube two days after it was uploaded. Both CNN and MSNBC played the video, and Wahls appeared on “The Last Word” on MSNBC Thursday night.
“I would not have predicted this at all,” Wahls said Thursday. “After the testimony, I got in the car and drove home, listening to the developments about Egypt. I thought it was pretty much open and closed.”
That was before the video hit YouTube. On Thursday, it was the most viewed news and politics video on YouTube, more than anything from the protests in Egypt. It was the website’s seventh most viewed video of the day in all categories. (The top slot: a Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial.)
There’s no recipe for going viral.
“It’s catching lightning in a bottle,” YouTube spokeswoman Annie Baxter said. “It’s something that’s very unexpected, and a video like this is a great example. Things that are really real and really authentic tend to resonate.”
Wahls’ speech, which he wrote over the weekend and rehearsed on his drive Monday, has those magical elements, Baxter said. He’s speaking from the heart, and he’s empathetic, talking about one of his mothers’ diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
“There’s an element of surprise because he’s so young, and you don’t expect him to be such an eloquent orator,” Baxter said. “And it’s topical as well.”
Some social conservatives who want to ban same-sex marriage think stories like Wahls’ unfairly drive the debate with emotional arguments. One speaker Monday in favor of the constitutional amendment called this “emotional bullying.”
Such stories show how the law directly affects one family. Same-sex marriage opponents argue that the negative effect of legalizing same-sex marriage is more subtle and happens over time – and doesn’t lend itself to heart-wrenching stories.
Wahls spoke of himself as an Eagle Scout, a stellar student and a small-business owner (a tutoring business). His point: We’re just like you.
“My family really isn’t so different from yours,” Wahls told legislators. “After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of worth from being told by the state, ‘You’re married, congratulations.’ No. The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other, to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us.”
After he spoke, half the gallery – the half wearing blue shirts – burst into applause.
“Although this has been picked up and sensationalized in the national media, we lead pretty boring lives,” Wahls said. “People are seeing another side to this debate, maybe a more human side.”
Wahls has a 16-year-old sister, Zebby, from the same anonymous donor dad. One mom is a physician; the other is a nurse. His moms married in October 2009 after being together for decades. Wahls played quarterback at West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, before he got into speech and debate. He’s a sophomore at the University of Iowa, and he recently got back from studying abroad in India. He wants to join the Peace Corps.
“Pretty boring” was perhaps correct until this week. He’s received hundreds of Facebook messages, all of them positive. And he might appear on a major national television show soon.
February 7, 2011