Giant Responsibilities: Standing Up & Standing Tall with Zach Wahls
YouTube’s tag line is ‘broadcast yourself’ – and people most certainly do. There are countless videos out there that have little to no impact on our lives. Videos that you will go without seeing and be no different or more changed than had you hit the play button. Though once in a great while, a video surfaces that lasts longer than the gnat-like attention spans of its viewers and does more than entertain. In the case of Zach Wahls maybe, just maybe there was a moment of social change.
Now, in case you weren’t aware, the United States is in the midst of the largest civil rights battle it has seen since the 1960s. This not only spans the widely talked about Marriage Equality conversation, but has now effected, what I would have considered, dead topics; women’s, voters, and other simple, basic human rights. It is sometimes hard to see who is really being targeted. It is so easy to blame the demise of this once great nation on a minority that is speaking out against the masses when there is no face, name, or otherwise personal connection.
In February 2011, a then-19-year-old engineering student stood before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee to speak on Joint Resolution 6 – a proposed constitutional amendment that would redefine marriage in Iowa to be limited to one man and one woman and eliminate the possibility of civil union between same sex couples in the future. A camera rolling in the room produced a video that surfaced on the great World Wide Web and quickly went viral. It wasn’t filled with flashy histrionics or mischievous antics, but was a quiet storm of emotions, impeccable timing, and well-made points from a vibrant new voice in the fight for equal rights for all Americans.
Now, over a year-and-a-half and almost eighteen million YouTube views later, Zach Wahls has taken up activism almost full-time, wrote “My Two Moms”, and spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Wahls, another self-proclaimed Giant, standing at a strapping six foot five inches, takes a few minutes to talk to ThereAreGiants about everything from his work, the representation of gay families on television, his experiences with bullying in schools, and even the possibility of ever running for office.
Standing Up -
TAG: Your presentation on marriage equality in front of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee last year had a huge impact on the Internet and within the Human Rights Campaign almost over night. In your book you described this experience as something surreal. How has the virulence of this event, in the short long term, presented opportunities to you to advance your voice on the subject?
Wahls: I have been given the opportunities to speak across the country at colleges, universities, and non-profit organizations. (This summer Mr. Wahls spoke at the Democratic National Convention) The book was the most immediate and obvious example and that was really the best opportunity to give my own opinion – a chance to extend my remarks beyond the three-minute speech and say all the things I couldn’t say in that time.
TAG: My Two Moms reads as the perfect guide to parenting and family values regardless of whom the parents or what the gender of the parents may be. What was your main focus of this book other than to tell your story and provide fact that the ‘sexual orientation of your parents has had zero impact on the content of your character?
Wahls: That was the overriding message, but beyond that I wanted to speak to other kids who had gay parents and already knew that. There are so many negative messages in the media that sometimes you do have to be reassuring and be another voice of reason and reassurance in the dialogue. I think that a lot of other young kids with gay parents do look up to me as a role model so I wanted make sure that I was laying out and positive example for them. You are all right. You are not alone. If you are not good now you will get better.
TAG: In My Two Moms you mention that your parents taught you specific ways (fogging) to deflect bullying and harassment in school. With the political and social crusade against bullying being in the headlines on a regular basis what kind of advice do you have for children and parents who are dealing with this aspect of growing up?
Wahls: I would push back on the idea that it’s an aspect of growing up. Keeping a ‘right of passage’ attitude creates a permission structure founded on ‘boys will be boys’. The single most important piece of advice I can give is that you have to talk about it. A lot of us experience [bullying] but don’t talk about it for a very long time and shoulder the burden on our own; it’s really difficult. I was honest with my parents and told them what was going on. I could have gotten help a lot earlier than I did and [they] could have helped me a lot sooner. If there are people to support you reach out to them because they are there to help you.
TAG: The It Get’s Better Project, founded by Dan Savage, was a way to reach out to young people who were suffering from bullying specific to sexual orientation. Do you feel as if though that has done more good by providing hope and a sense of togetherness or harm by giving a stance of permission to bullies and a ‘just deal with it because it gets better’ attitude?
Wahls: They are a great example of great ideas and the ability the Internet age allows for things to take off. This was an idea that went viral versus an event or story. I think the It Gets Better Project has really done an effective job in stigmatizing bullying. Something that Harvey Milk talked about was giving people hope. They do that in a very effective way. Everyone from Obama to Colbert made videos; that’s truly powerful stuff. There are always more to do but I think that probably any other single project in any recent memory have done a really great job of giving people hope for the future.
TAG: Earlier this year Gallup claimed that the American public is now more than 50% (54%) in favor of Marriage Equality and Gay Rights. In your humble opinion, how do you feel as if though your public presence as an upstanding and impressive adult has had an impact on those approval rates?
Wahls: Very minimal. In terms of what impact kids are generally having on the debate: for a long time the last really big concern was ‘what is gay parenting impact going to have on kids’? Now that there are enough of us that are of age and showing we are upstanding it is apparent that having gay parents, broadly speaking, is really not meaningfully different than having straight parents. I may be one of the more visible and vocal kids that the American media liked, but really it is a group effort in that respect.
TAG: Even in LGBT characters such as Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell, do you see kernels of truth in how they are presented and handled as mainstream families and how they raise and interact with their family members? (What do you think of the LGBT families shown in film and TV?
Wahls: The fact that they are present at all is important. The idea that there will be a generation where there would not be gay families or out celebrities is awesome. Eventually it will stop being a gimmick and turn into something that would be: ‘sometimes there are gay parents’ as interracial families have evolved on Television.
TAG: Do you plan to pursue a political career or one that is strongly faceted in the human rights forum as you find your path in life or will that merely be a sidebar to your engineering degree/career?
Wahls: No, I’m not really thinking about elected office. I’m still new to this experience and have gotten an awful lot of experience in communications and it seems relatively likely that I’ll go into a field in that area. Though it’s hard to say one way or another, but if there is anything that I have learned in the last year-and-a-half it’s that the future is very hard to predict. One day at a time.
Standing Tall –
TAG: Everyone must react with surprise at your height. Do you find it annoying or endearing?
Wahls: Surprised, yes, but not any kind of weird reaction. 6’5 is still the upper cusp of acceptable normal height where people appreciate it and they think its cool; If you get into 6’7, 6’8 territory then that’s really, really, really tall.
TAG: When you were growing up when did it first occur to you that you were tall?
Wahls: In my sophomore year I was practicing out on the football field and this wide receiver looked at me and said ‘Dude when did you get so tall?’ I was never hugely tall until high school.
TAG: You do a lot of traveling, how to you remain reasonably comfortable on trains, planes, and automobiles?
Wahls: Luckily I travel enough that occasionally I get upgraded – and first class is way easier than not first class. Stewardesses get it pretty well and they can check if there is room in the exit row. The exit row and upgrade options are really only way to travel by flight and be comfortable.Needless to say, trains aren’t really an issue, busses are usually fine if I can get both seats – if I have to sit next to someone it’s going to be uncomfortable.
TAG: As An engineering student, name three ways you would redesign the world for talls:
1. Bigger planes – given.
2. More lofted ceiling apartments
3. Bigger cars. Seat all the way back and the wheel up all the way, two inches too short for it to be perfectly comfortable.
TAG: Have your parents ever had to make any special accommodations for you growing up because of your size?
Wahls: Not particularly though getting clothes was always kind of an experience, but it was never a handicap per-se
TAG: What are some brands or designers that you find often work for you?
Wahls: I usually buy Express dress shirts, but always have to roll up the sleeves. I do have some Calvin Klein shirts. They are cut fairly trim and tend to make their shirts with longer sleeves. I’m also a big fan of Banana Republic khakis.
TAG: When you prepare for public appearances, where do you go to get the clothes that will make you look your personal best?
Wahls: Nothing special, though now that I think about it the suit that I’m wearing in the YouTube video were custom made by Indochino. They’re affordable and really easy. Take your measurements and plug them in online and you get a suit that fits really well.
TAG: What is a staple article of clothing in your wardrobe that you absolutely MUST have?
Wahls: A good tie. I am very appreciative of a good tie with a tie clip. I almost always wear a tie clip and almost always get a ‘way to bring that back’ from someone. The tail [of the tie] is so short you can’t tuck it in, so it’s a good way to hide that.
Major thank you to Zach Wahls for taking time out of his schedule to speak with ThereAreGiants.com.