Feb. 3, 2011— -- The latest Internet hero is Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa engineering student and Eagle Scout whose parents are lesbians.
Wahls gave a three-minute speech Tuesday before Iowa legislators urging them not to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage and civil unions.
His words went viral across the Internet and had nearly a half million hits on YouTube today.
"In my 19 years, not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple," said Wahls. "And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero affect on the content of my character."
Introducing himself as a "sixth-generation Iowan," Wahls said he had achieved the Boy Scouts' highest rank and attained a 99th percentile on his college aptitude test.
"If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I would make you very proud," he testified.
"I'm not really so different from any of your children, said Wahls. "My family really isn't so different from yours. After all, your family doesn't derive its sense of worth from being told by the state, 'You're married, congratulations!'"
Wahls was one of hundreds who testified Monday before an Iowa House hearing on a proposed gay marriage ban. His mothers, Dr. Terry Wahls and Jacqueline Reger, were married after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2009.
He described his biological mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, as the "bravest woman I know."
Wahls didn't grasp the impact of his speech until the next day, when a friend told him, "Do you realize you are all over Facebook?"
"I had no idea what she was talking about," said Wahls. "It took up half of her news feed, and I saw the YouTube video, and it had 5,000 hits Tuesday afternoon.
"The response was overwhelming," said Wahls, who got barraged with calls from the media. "It was the most stressful snow day I have ever had."
His speech, however, fell on deaf ears. Three Democrats joined 59 Republicans to vote in favor of amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage, which passed by a 62-37 vote.
If approved by legislators and voters in 2013, the amendment to the constitution would ban gay marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and any government recognition of gay and lesbian couples in the state
Gay Marriage Is Legal in Six States
The year his parents wed, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously legalized gay marriage, making it the third state and the first heartland state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Gay marriage is now legal in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Washington, D.C. New York, California, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., recognize marriages by same-sex couples legally performed elsewhere.
Just last week Barbara Bush, the daughter of former President George W. Bush, expressed her support for same-sex marriage in a new online PSA video for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
"My family eats together, goes to church on Sunday and goes on vacations, just like you," Wahls told legislators.
"The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other," he said. "To work through the hard times, so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That's what makes a family.
"So what you're voting here isn't to change us. It's not to change our families. It's to change how the law views us. How the law treats us," he said.
A 2008 University of Iowa field poll from October of last year found that over 32 percent of Iowa voters opposed same-sex marriage and only 28 percent supported gay marriage, according to the Iowa Family Policy Center.
The center's website states that the organization believes "that marriage is a permanent, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. The group has lobbied for House Joint Resolution 6.
But One Iowa, an advocacy group that opposes the ban, said that poll also asked about support for civil unions, and 30 percent opposed gay marriage, but supported civil unions.
A more recent 2010 poll showed 53 percent supported gay marriage and 41 percent were opposed, according to One Iowa.
Janice Langbehn, who with her late partner Lisa Pond raised four adopted children, all with special needs, said that, "Zach is absolutely correct in that my children don't ask for special treatment."
She filed and lost a lawsuit four years ago after Pond died alone in a Florida hospital. Langbehn said she was denied visitation rights because she was a lesbian. Federal law now prohibits discrimination in visitation rights because of that case.
"Our kids are different than some families since we did not give birth to them; however, we love them beyond measure," said Langbehn. "Lisa instilled in our children the desire for community service, respect for teachers and others in authority, help friends and never to bully," she said.
A growing number of children who affectionately call themselves "gaybies" or "queer spawn" are now reshaping the American family.
Of the 270,000 children living with same-sex parents, about 65,000 are adopted. Most, like other Americans, are in two-child families.
Just under 1 percent of all couples in the U.S. -- or 594,391 people -- identify themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender, and about 20 percent of them are raising children under the age of 18, according to the Williams Institute, an organization that advances sexual orientation law and public policy.
Studies Show Children of Gays are Alright
Recent studies conclude that children of same-sex parents do as well as children of heterosexual couples.
When the Census Bureau added a category for unwed partners about 20 years, ago these families could begin to be counted.
Research now shows that 1 in 5 male same-sex couples and 1 in 3 female same-sex couples have children, according to a report in The New York Times.
A University of Southern California study concludes that children with lesbian or gay parents show more empathy for social diversity, are less confined by gender stereotypes, and are probably more likely to explore homosexual activity themselves, according to an article in the American Sociological Review.
Researchers say the emotional health of the two sets of children is essentially the same.
Kim Bergman, a psychologist and co-owner of the Los Angeles surrogacy agency Growing Generations, said Wahls was "an amazing young man and the things he said were really poignant...I would be proud of a son like that."
Bergman, 47 and a lesbian, is raising two daughters, 12 and 15, with her wife. The couple was married in Canada.
In her work with same-sex families, she has seen "no deleterious effect" on their children. "And if they are different, they tend to be more worldly, more open-minded and more empathic," said Bergman.
Her older daughter was freshman year valedictorian and this year, president of her class and a competitive swimmer. Bergman's youngest plays leads in the school plays and is on the soccer team and swims.
"My point isn't how special my kids are, but how ordinary my family is," she said. "Our kids bicker and they don't want to clear the table and do homework. They want to see videos and chat with friends."
She said her children have "everything in common with every other family who has adolescent kids."
"One message I have to anyone who opposes gay families is: Have dinner with my family," said Bergman. "Come to sit in my living room when the dog barks at the cat and the kids bicker and hug and argue over the remote and do their homework. It is so ordinary, it's funny."
As for Wahls, he said he is disappointed that the Iowa House voted in favor of the ban on gay marriage, but he is convinced it will not pass the state Senate.
His sister -- a full biological sister because the family used the same sperm donor -- was proud of his speech, and so were his parents.
"Both my moms were very excited and anxious to see how this turns out," said Wahls.
And to other children of same-sex parents, he added, "You are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you."