Why did President Obama “evolve” on same-sex marriage? In the rush to ascribe Machiavellian political motives to him, too many of us Washington-commentator types skipped over what he actually said: Knowing real-life same-sex couples, seeing “how caring they are” and “how they’re taking care of their kids,” he said, “just has tipped the scales in that direction.”
Obama’s statement rings true. In the struggle for gay equality, marches, courts and brilliant articles by Washington-commentator types may have made a difference, but coming out has mattered more. More than two-thirds of Americans say they have a colleague, close friend or relative who is gay, up from about a fifth in the 1980s. To know gay people may not always be to love us, but it makes fearing and demonizing us much harder.
And now come those kids whom Obama alluded to. The coming out of gay people in the 1970s and the emergence of the “gayby boom” and the marriage movement in the 1990s were the first two stages of a three-stage rocket. The children of the boom are growing up, speaking up and turning the tables on the “family values” crowd.
Zach Wahls is handsome, smart, athletic, articulate, an Eagle Scout, a student leader and, in case you’re wondering, straight. He is also the son of a lesbian couple. (His father is an anonymous sperm donor, whom he has no desire to meet.) In 2011, at age 19, he delivered a plea before the Iowa state legislature that became an overnight sensation.
“The sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character,” he declared. Millions watched the speech on YouTube, and it propelled Wahls to a part-time career as a gay-rights spokesman. As I sat down to write this review, I was startled to receive an e-mail ostensibly from him: a fundraising letter, it turned out, for the campaign against a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
His new book, “My Two Moms,” is his own coming-out story. “I’m not gay, but I know how it feels to be in the closet,” he writes. As a child in the Midwest, he tried to avoid letting kids find out about his same-sex parents. In high school, he successfully came out to his classmates, only to discover that his moms’ union was the object of a political attack by people who, he thought, had no idea what his family was really like.
And so Wahls rose to speak out. “I just wanted to defend my family,” he says. “We, the kids of gay parents, haven’t really contributed much because we were busy growing up, and adolescence is hard enough as it is without having to respond to society’s incessant questions about your family structure.” If Wahls is any indication, these kids are going to be heard from.
As a narrative, Wahls’s memoir, although appealingly written with Bruce Littlefield, is disadvantaged by the uneventfulness of its young subject’s life. His birth mother, Terry, struggles with multiple sclerosis, and is supported unstintingly by his other mother, Jackie Reger. Against the odds, Terry makes a partial recovery. Zach finds success at school and scouting. At last, he finds his voice. A gripping action-adventure it is not, but that, of course, is exactly Wahls’s point: The most extraordinary thing about his family is its ordinariness, and its foundation on that extraordinary substrate called love.
Gay parents are being heard from, too. Dan Bucatinsky, a Hollywood writer, producer and actor, settles down with his partner, Don, and they adopt two kids, a girl and then a boy. Gay parenting has its challenges. Gay dads struggle for insight into a very plainly straight little boy and a very girlish little girl; the parents’ gender roles are unscripted; the family copes with curiosity and disapproval. And then there’s the day when their daughter, Eliza, says she wishes she had a mom and a dad. “Straight to the heart, that one,” Bucatinsky says. “Just straight in and deep.” Anti-gay types may try to make hay with that anecdote, but Bucatinsky’s refusal to sugarcoat makes his book all the more believable and touching.
I wished at times that he did not try so insistently to be entertaining, that he would dial down the standup patter. (“But honestly, I’m a big fan of the animal kingdom.”) But perhaps the cover of irony helps when you are confessing to “squirting tears” at your daughter’s soccer games. “I’m touched by the pride on my own daughter’s face. And I’m overjoyed by this feeling of affirmation and belonging that comes from just being a guy with his husband and kids at a soccer game. Sounds so simple, yet it feels like something I only dreamed about growing up.”
Indeed it does. For centuries, the claim that homosexuals pose a threat to children has been gays’ version of blood libel. Kids supposedly needed defending from us. And now it is our kids who are defending us. If, to a gay American, having children on our side and families at our backs feels like a miracle, that is because it is a miracle. And despite the hard moments, or indeed because of them, no one who reads these books will doubt that Zach and Eliza are fortunate kids.
MY TWO MOMS
Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family
By Zach Wahls with Bruce Littlefield
Gotham. 234 pp. $26
By Dan Bucatinsky
Touchstone. 245 pp. Paperback, $14.99