By Emma Sailor
To hear Zach Wahls tell it, his foray into professional activism — and later on, politics — began as pure happenstance.
While the University of Iowa and Daily Iowan alum has been known nationally as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights since 2011, when his emotional speech in defense of same-sex marriage before a Iowa House of Representatives committee went viral at the time the issue was simply a personal one, he said.
“At that point I was a sophomore here at the University of Iowa, I was studying civil and environmental engineering — I was not planning to become the literal poster child of gay marriage in this state,” he said. “But then the 2010 midterm elections happened, and it was kind of a scary moment.”
Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2009 following a unanimous ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court; that same year, his parents Terry and Jackie Wahls wedded after 14 years of partnership.
In 2011, the Iowa House voted to approve Joint Resolution 6, which proposed a constitutional amendment that formally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Had the amendment passed the Senate, it would have voided the same-sex marriages that had taken place in the state.
“I got in my Pontiac Grand-Am, drove out to Des Moines, and I delivered a short, three-minute speech,” he said.
Unknown to Wahls, the speech was taped on a “flip camera” and uploaded to YouTube. Two days later, he said, the video had garnered more than 1 million views, and he received offers from CBS, MSNBC, and the Ellen DeGeneres show to interview.
While the resolution ultimately failed to pass the state Senate, Wahls said, the moment marked a turning point in his life’s direction.
“I had this choice to make – was I going to go back to focusing on being an engineering student, stick to my original plan?” he said. “But I remembered [as a child] not seeing anybody on the national level stepping up to fight for people like us, so when I had this opportunity to be an advocate, I knew that eighth grade me would be exceptionally disappointed in college sophomore me if I just decided to walk away.”
Five years later, in late 2016, Wahls declared his candidacy for state Senate District 37, which encompasses Coralville and parts of Johnson County.
Minimum wage, public-education funding, and Medicaid privatization are among the issues he most wants to address, he said.
“You look at all the changes that have happened on health care, on education, on workers’ rights and those are why I’m running,” he said. “We need to be working to make higher education more affordable, we need to make sure we’re restoring local control over minimum wage.”
While the policy changes enacted locally and nationally since the 2016 election were primary motivators in his choice to run for state Senate, Wahls said his experience as LGBTQ+ rights activist remains important to him.
“The advocacy I’ve done for the community has helped me learn how to be an effective advocate, how to organize, how to have tough conversations,” he said. “It is, I think, integral to who I am as a candidate and a person.”