Wahls confronts walls

Wahls confronts walls

Gay rights activist and Internet sensation Mark Wahls spoke at the Living Learning Center Heritage Hall last Wednesday to a crowd of about 125.

It was a quarter past 7 p.m. last Wednesday and speaker Zach Wahls was late.

“He didn’t realize how far State College was from UPJ,” Programming Board President Dedra Totin said by way of explanation.

By this time, the crowd of about 125 in Heritage Hall had already found seats, but none seemed to have minded the delay.

After all, Wahls is an Internet sensation. His career was launched last year by a video that received more than 20 million views.

The video consists of Wahls addressing the Iowa Legislature about being raised by two mothers.

To distract from the delay, Programming Board organizers shared a video compilation of Wahls and Obama speaking at the National Democratic Convention this year.

As the speeches played, many watched with rapt attention.

“We still have a long way to go, but we will get there,” Obama’s speech echoed in the hall. “Put a stop to discrimination of gays and lesbians.”

The video encountered several awkward pauses due to a poor Internet connection, but Wahls arrived soon after.

Wahls, who is now a full-time gay-rights activist and speaker, asked the audience whether they have seen the video that had made him famous. A majority of hands went up, but he played it anyway to benefit those who had not seen it.

The video stopped abruptly, and Wahls carried on and finished.

Wahls recalled being asked to speak at the Iowa Legislature, and the YouTube video of his testimony went viral within two days.

“I woke up to 500 emails and about 400 notifications on Facebook,” Wahls said. “My ex-girlfriend called me saying that she had seen the video on Perez Hilton’s website.”

Wahls said he usually receives the same reaction from college students when he tells them about his family life.

“Normally once the guys at the bar find out I have two moms, their first reaction is, ‘Are your moms hot?’” Wahls said, “which is just weird.”

Wahls, who was conceived using in vitro fertilization by way of an anonymous sperm donor, said he doesn’t feel a need to find out who his father is.

“Everyone has a dad but not everyone has a father. It’s that emotional connection,” Wahls said. “I wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with him at a bar, but I wouldn’t feel a need to bring him to every family function.”

At the event, Wahls also spoke on marriage equality and how it has affected his family. He said there isn’t much of a difference between his family and any other family.

“It’s gay marriage, or how my family and I put it, marriage,” Wahls said. “They’re not my gay moms, they are just my moms.

“Being gay doesn’t define who my parents are. We don’t have a gay house, or a gay car, and, as far as we can tell, we don’t have a gay dog.”

Wahls said having gay parents also didn’t affect how he and his sister were raised.

“Gender doesn’t determine life skills, as a lot of people think. When my sister was learning to wear makeup, having two moms was not helpful to her,” Wahls said.

“As they say ‘It takes a village’ and I had a lot of best friends, uncles and grandfathers who helped me,” Wahls said. “I may not have had a dad, but I learned great values from my mom and other male role models.”

Living in a state where his moms’ relationship is not recognized, Wahls said it can be challenging, because his moms lack all of the rights he said they should have.

“Nothing says family like marriage, nothing says love like marriage,” Wahls said. “Marriage conveys a sense of trust.”

He recalled some of the hardest times came when his mom, Terry, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006.

“Terry went through her most painful experience with Multiple Sclerosis and ended up almost dying in an emergency room,” Wahls said. “Jackie (his other mom) was told that she would have to wait outside the emergency room because their marriage wasn’t recognized.”

Totin, who proposed the idea initially and managed the event, met Wahls at the National Association for Campus Activities in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think he’s a big inspiration, and it’s great to have an active speaker on our campus.

When I met him at the convention, I knew (Pitt-Johnstown) had to have him (as a speaker).”

Assistant Housing Director Shaun Hemphill, who is also the adviser of UPJ Alliance, said he was happy about the event’s turnout.

“I thought (Wahls) was a great speaker,” Hemphill said. “(Especially) since it is a discussion now throughout America, about the notion of changing.”

Totin said three organizations contributed to pay for Wahls’s appearance: Programming Board, UPJ Alliance and Keystone Alliance. She said she was unaware how much the total cost was.

After the event, Wahls stayed for a question-and-answer session, and welcomed anyone who wanted a photo with him or further inquiries.

Wahls, whose UPJ stop is part of a 60-day advocacy tour, said a downside of his explosive rise to fame was that he has to be away from his family.

“One of the reasons why I was late was because I had just received a call telling me Terry had a stroke,” he said.