Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wahls learned much from two moms, Boy Scouts

Originally printed April 29, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Zach Wahls is such a Boy Scout.

His commitment to scout values bleeds through every page of his new memoir, “My Two Moms.”
The book’s original subtitle, “Everything I Needed to Know About Gay Marriage I Learned in Boy Scouts,” has been replaced with a less provocative “Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.” But the organizational structure for “My Two Moms” remains Boy Scout to the core — with every chapter organized around a scout motto, slogan, oath or theme from the scout law.
And strategy works.

After all, it’s Wahls’ Eagle Scout demeanor — plus his experience on the high school debate team — that allowed his words to come across as more than “just another speech” during a long day filled with speech-making.
When standing before the Iowa House of Representatives in February 2011 and arguing why Iowa should refuse to take a step backward in the cause of civil rights, Wahls not only had to choose his words carefully; he also needed to be able to offer himself as Exhibit A for answering the question, “Can gays even raise kids?”

“I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT,” Wahls said in a speech that now has been viewed more than 18 million times. “I’m actually an Eagle Scout. I own and operate my own small business.
“If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Whether or not he fully recognized it at the time, Zach Wahls was both the messenger and the message.

And that’s why the West High graduate and former Press-Citizen Writers’ Group member now has something worthwhile to say about how his two mothers — Terry Wahls and Jackie Reger — have taught him not only to “be prepared,” but also to be obedient, trustworthy, kind, friendly, reverent, helpful, courteous, cheerful, loyal, clean, thrifty and brave.

Indeed, it was his non-biological mother, Jackie, who taught him those lessons directly as one of the most engaged den mothers in his scout troop.

All teenagers, of course, feel embarrassed by their parents at some point. But Wahls is painfully (even embarrassingly) honest about how he, as a self-centered adolescent, had a much harder time dealing with the complications of Terry’s multiple sclerosis than he ever did with the fact that he had two loving, capable parents committed to each other and committed to helping him develop into a man of character.

It’s Wahls’ repeated willingness to own up to his imperfections that makes “My Two Moms” worth reading and worth Wahls taking time away from his engineering studies at UI to write.

“When we read about gay and lesbian parenting, we tend to think about big cities,” said Elizabeth Heineman, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. “This book will be useful, not just for the Iowa connection, but for making the point that this isn’t just a big-city phenomenon. That there are people growing up with two moms in small cities and small towns across the country.”

Heineman — who regularly teaches classes in “Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights” — said she can easily imagine placing Wahls’ book on a syllabus alongside of the many other memoirs she has her undergraduates read.

“It’s a coming of age tale,” Heineman said. “I can see reading it especially with memoirs from people describing what it was like from them to grow up gay in a small community. ... It would help show there are all kinds of stories that make up life in the contemporary United States.”

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at