It's been a big seven years for Zach Wahls. In 2011, the then-19-year-old gave a passionate speech about his lesbian moms to Iowa's House of Representatives opposing a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed gay marriage. His words were recorded and went viral — now, in 2018, he's running to join his state senate. Zach Wahls won his Iowa primary race to represent the state's 37th district on Tuesday, and he's still pushing his message of acceptance and inclusion.
When Wahls spoke to his state legislature in 2011, lawmakers were considering House Joint Resolution 6, which would have banned marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships between partners of the same gender. Iowa was then one of just three states that had legalized gay marriage (it wouldn't be legal across the United States until the Supreme Court decided that married couples anywhere were entitled to federal benefits in 2013).
Iowa risked moving backward at the time when Wahls approached the assembly to oppose the resolution. He spoke to the room about his experience being raised by two mothers, and his speech quickly went viral after being shared on YouTube.
"Our family really isn't so different from any other Iowa family," he said. "When I'm home, we go to church together, we eat dinner, we go on vacations." Wahls noted that "we have our hard times too," but that "We're Iowans. We don't expect anyone to solve our problems for us or fight our own battles. We just hope for equal and fair treatment from our government."
"Not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple," Wahls said at the end of his speech. "And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character."
The gay marriage ban did pass Iowa's House of Representatives, but the Senate refused to take it up and the House leader said that he would not continue to push the issue. According to The Washington Post, Wahls' advocacy helped turn lawmakers' opinion against the resolution.
Nine months after his speech spread across the web, Wahls told a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" thread that he didn't enjoy the public scrutiny that comes with internet fame. He said that he would love to work for a politician he believed in, but as far as running for office himself, he was "not sure."
Now he is sure. Wahls announced his candidacy for the Iowa Senate last winter, and at 26 years old, he could become one of its youngest members ever, according to ABC News. Among the issues on which he's focusing his campaign are workers' rights, gun safety, education reform, and health care access. He wants to address Iowa's mental health and opioid crises as well as strengthen the state's Medicaid program and restore full funding to Planned Parenthood.
Wahls has kept busy since delivering that fateful speech in 2011. The following year, he gave a speech in support of Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention and published a book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. He's due to graduate from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School this spring with a masters degree in public policy. With these accomplishments (nearly) behind him, he's ready to take his activism into the arena of state politics.
"I hope that tonight is a turning point that marks the beginning of rebuilding our state's social foundation," Wahls told the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Tuesday after his victory. "This represents a renewed commitment to a health care system that works for everybody, a tradition of excellence in our public education, and a strong commitment to worker's rights."