Five Questions With… Zach Wahls

I was lucky enough to meet Zach Wahls at a recent fundraiser and awards gala for Fair Wisconsin. He gave such an amazing talk and was such a cool guy that I couldn’t help but ask him a few things.

Zach Wahls: My Two Moms(And how can you not love the adorable cover of his book? It’s good, too. )

1)      You are sometimes referred to as an “ally” of the larger LGBTQ communities but I don’t think you see yourself that way. Can you talk a little about what it means for you to be called an ally as opposed to being a community member?

I’m most often referred to as a “straight ally” by both the public and members of the LGBTQ community. And that’s usually fine, I don’t correct people or feel that it’s necessary for me to do so. But personally, I don’t feel as though I’m truly an “ally” because, in my mind, I’m a member of the LGBTQ community even though I’m not, personally, LGBTQ-identified. I know that the last thing any of us want to do is add another letter to the acronym, but the reality is that I do feel as though I’m a member of the community. Like LGBTQ people, I was born into this community. Like LGBTQ people, I have felt the shame and humiliation of being in the closet. Like LGBTQ people, I am regularly stigmatized by those who oppose LGBTQ rights as inferior, defective and sinful. The parallels are not perfect, of course, but as a community, we need to figure out a way to create spaces and community for those of us who have grown up with queer parents. So, to be clear, it’s not that I’m LGBTQ-identified, but that I feel the LGBTQ community includes its children, and that, to the extent that that’s true, kids like me are a part of the community.

2)      Absolutely. I feel the same way as the partner of a trans person. Sadly, we don’t have as cool a term as “queerspawn”, which you mentioned offends plenty but does so for very good reasons. I would love to hear more about how you use the word and why.

Ahhh. The word “queerspawn.” I think anytime we hear the word “spawn,” we tend to word associate to things like insects and Satan’s spawn, so the connotations, immediately, are often negative. Add “queer” to the front of it–a word that, despite its reclamation by the community–still makes plenty of people uncomfortable. I’ve gotten plenty of angry e-mails from older LGBTQ folks demanding to know why I used the word in various pieces of writing. I tend to use the word in safe, queer-friendly spaces. Outside of such spaces, it can often be misinterpreted. Usually, I think it’s used to describe anybody with an LGBTQ parent or parents. At least, that’s how I use it. And while the word definitely made me a little uncomfortable at first–I think it offended my Midwestern sensibilities–it has definitely grown on me. And I think that’s an interesting metaphor for Queerspawn as a demographic. At first, we made society at large very uncomfortable. But then we got a little older, people got a little more familiar with who we are, and they realized that they didn’t have anything to be afraid of.

3)     I love the way you rock white male privilege on behalf of marriage equality. Can you talk a little to what it’s like being “that guy who speaks in favor of marriage equality”? Do you find other men your age reluctant to be in favor of gay rights or feminism or the like?

Again, this is a really interesting intersection. As a straight, white, cisgender, upper-middle class man from Iowa, I’ve got more privilege than I know what to do with. But as the son of a same-sex couple who witnessed, time and time again, my family experience prejudice as a result of homophobia, those experiences shaped me in really, really intimate ways, and so I think I have a better understanding of just how dangerous that fear is and the deleterious effects it has on society.

Being “that guy” is something I’m okay with. I was “that guy” in high school for having two moms. There are definitely not nearly as many guys who are fighting for this cause, though. I spend a lot of my time speaking at college campuses, and I’d say that my audiences are usually 80-90% female. That being said, the audiences for *any* college lecture tend, I’ve been told, to skew heavily female. I think that we have two separate things to blame here.

First, of course, there’s the idea that standing up for LGBTQ rights is something that “real men” don’t do because LGBTQ people aren’t “real” people whose rights are worth defending, in the same way that very few men self-identify as feminists.

Then, I think, there’s also this odd idea that in modern society, men are not supposed to be “book smart,” because “real men” don’t need to be book smart, they need to be “street smart,” whatever that means. It’s an odd blend of hyper-masculinity and anti-intellectualism.

If nothing else, I think this is a great reminder that the patriarchy hurts men, too.

4)      I couldn’t agree more. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always been a feminist: patriarchy is bad for men, too. In hearing you speak, I was reminded of all the amazing PFLAG parents I’ve met, and of all the non-trans partners of trans people I’ve known, who out of their own love of a person – child, partner, parent – discovered this horrendous social injustice happening just under our noses. I think it’s a strength, but others see it as an innate bias, that we somehow are too much in a rush or can’t see the issue/politics clearly exactly because of the people we love. Thoughts?

I guess I’m always skeptical of the idea that we should somehow be afraid of our emotions when it comes to things that we care deeply about. Humans are deeply emotional beings. We aren’t algebra equations where x and y always have pre-defined values, regardless of the inputs. Now, that doesn’t mean that we should blindly just do whatever we feel like. But to dismiss emotive reasoning is to dismiss a very real part of what makes us human.

The problem, of course, arises when we (supporters of LGBT rights) then turn around and mock the emotive reasoning in which folks who are opposed to LGBT rights engage. Logical reasoning has an important role to play in our movement–the courts, for example–and it’s important that we understand the logic and empiricism, but in a day to day context, I think an emotional connection to this issue is what fuels most of us, both queer and straight.

5)      I am always concerned about the nature of who we’re including and excluding. Do you see marriage equality as somehow distancing or excluding those who are poly?

Good question. As somebody who isn’t poly and who doesn’t have, to my knowledge, any openly poly friends, I guess I can’t say for sure. I do, however, think that if you have fully consensual relationships, those relationships need protection and recognition. From a practical legal standpoint, there are a lot of difficulties to be navigated the moment marriage expands beyond two consenting parties in determining things like next-of-kin, medical decision making power, inheritance rights/execution, tax burdens, etc. If there’s an effective way of reconciling those, I’d certainly be interested in learning more.

I often hear, too, kind of the inverse question about this: why should we be denying unmarried couples the rights that their married friends have?
The problem, of course, is that when you strip away the religious components, a marriage license is simply a legal contract in which the people getting married literally sign away certain rights, privileges, etc. to the person that they are marrying. You can call the contract whatever you’d like, but at the end of the day, from a legal standpoint, there has to be *some* kind of document that both parties sign to show an emergency room doctor that the unconscious person you claim to be able to make medical decisions for has really given you that kind of power. The honor system doesn’t cut it for these kinds of situations.

6)      Finally, since this is a largely trans and gendery readership: what are your thoughts on trans rights?

I think Joe Biden put it surprisingly well when he said that trans* rights are one of the key civil rights issues of our time. One of the interesting things that I’ve seen is that trans* people often have the legal mechanisms necessary for transition but lack the social acceptance of their LGB peers. On the flip side, LGB people increasingly have that social acceptance, but in a vast majority of states, still lack the legal mechanism (marriage) that they are looking for. It’s an odd dichotomy. We certainly have a long ways to go on trans* issues, but I’m hopeful that we’re getting closer to reaching a tipping point where people more or less throw their hands up and say, “Look, I don’t care who you are or what you do so long as it’s consensual and doesn’t negatively affect anyone else.” Will that be enough? No. But it would certainly go a long ways, I hope, to getting us all to follow the Golden Rule. And at the end of the day, treating others the way we want to be treated–especially when it comes to trans* issues–is really what this is all about, regardless of who you are or who you love.