The youngest Elizabeth Birch Award winner has a list of credentials that would make any activist proud
At age 19, Zach Wahls spoke in front of the Iowa Legislature where he said, “I was raised by two women.” A video of his speech has been viewed 18 million times.
He spoke at the 2012 Democratic convention. He’s been on Ellen and The Daily Show and wrote a book titled My Two Moms that has a quote from Jon Stewart on the cover.
He’s an Eagle Scout who started Scouts for Equality, an organization that was instrumental in ending the ban on gay Scouts — but not before he caused the Boy Scouts to lose almost $1 million in funding.
His list of accomplishments by age 22 so impressed the Black Tie Dinner board that Wahls will be in Dallas this weekend to receive the Elizabeth Birch Equality Award. The award is given to an individual, organization or company that has made a significant contribution of national scope to the LGBT community. Wahls is the youngest person to receive it.
Board member Miller Crowe was impressed by the way Wahls defended his mothers in front of the Legislature.
“He’s been straight forward about who his family is,” Crowe said.
That wasn’t always the case, though.
“Being different can be dangerous,” Wahls said.
In elementary school, there were times when he hid the fact he was raised by two moms, and he was bullied. When he was in Cub Scouts, one of his moms served as an interim Cubmaster.
“There were probably a couple of parents who raised an eyebrow or two,” he said.
Today he doesn’t call himself an LGBT ally. He’s part of a growing segment the community without a letter to add to the mix — children of gays and lesbians, and he’s become an advocate for the community by talking about his family.
“I don’t talk about having gay parents,” he said. “I talk about having my parents.”
Just as parents can champion for their gay and lesbian children by talking about loving them, children of gay parents are becoming advocates by talking about their stable, loving families.
Several experiences Wahls had as a child shaped his views on the treatment of gays and lesbians. He wrote in his book that when one of his moms was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his other mom was treated at the hospital as just the person who drove her in.
In the book, Wahls also devotes space to reviewing each of the Boy Scouts of America’s 12 values and how his moms instilled those values in him.
After he earned the rank of Eagle Scout, Wahls realized excluding gay Scouts and LGBT adult leaders from the organization contradicted the organization’s values.
Mark Anthony Dingbaum, communications manager at Change.org, worked with Wahls on the campaign to change the Boy Scout policy.
“When Zach Wahls founded Scouts for Equality and pledged to end discrimination in BSA, there were many who doubted that the decade-old policy of banning gay members, a policy defended by the United States Supreme Court, could be crushed at the hands of this young Eagle Scout,” Dingbaum said.
He said critics claimed online petitions couldn’t translate to true movement-building or create real, systemic change.
“But 13 months, 124 petitions and more than 1.8 million Change.org petition signatures later, Zach proved the naysayers wrong, successfully mobilizing Scouts, Scout leaders and Scouting families across the country to officially end the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay youth,” Dingbaum said.
After those signatures were delivered to BSA headquarters in Irving, and the organization continued to resist change, Wahls hit them in their pocketbook. He began contacting corporate donors, pointing out to a number of them that their donations to the Boy Scouts violated their own policies. His first success was Intel, which had given the Boy Scouts $700,000 the previous year.
Intel agreed Boy Scout policy violated its corporate giving policy. UPS quickly followed and cut off its $167,000 donation to the group.
“The UPS Foundation seeks to support organizations that are in alignment with our focus areas, guidelines, and non-discrimination policy,” the company wrote in its press release about its decision to end Boy Scout funding. That policy includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Wahls said he targeted both Intel and UPS because of their 100-percent rating with the Human Rights Campaign. Two other large companies, Merck and Caterpillar, also pulled their donations from the Scouts as a result of Walhs’ queries.
As the money started evaporating, the Boy Scouts proposed a local-option plan. Local councils could decide whether to extend membership to gay Scouts and allow LGBT Scout leaders. Instead of doing that, however, at an annual meeting in Grapevine in May, more than 60 percent of the
Scouts’ 1,400-member National Council voted to allow gay youth membership in the Scouts until age 18, but not to allow LGBT leaders.
“That was a hard day because of my moms,” Wahls said, “but we had a nationwide policy that would affect kids the same everywhere.”
He calls the new policy illogical. “One day a Scout can be honored as an Eagle Scout, and the next day when he turns 18, he’s thrown out,” he said.
Since the policy change in May, Wahls said his Scouts for Equality has been undergoing restructuring.
“We were campaign-heavy, and we’re becoming a watchdog,” he said.
He said his volunteer base remains strong and enthusiastic.
For the past two years, Wahls has been involved full time in advocacy work for equality. This fall he returned to the University of Iowa to finish his engineering degree and hopes to graduate in the spring. He said he expects changes at the Boy Scouts to be more gradual than the one earlier this year.
“We’re seeing the loudest advocates against us are joining a spinoff organization,” he said.
He thinks that as those opponents leave the Scouts, change will come more easily to the organization.
That’s just fine for him. There is plenty of discrimination out there for him to tackle.
Wahls will attend Black Tie Dinner on Nov. 2 with his two moms.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 1, 2013.