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‘That kid from YouTube’

Young Iowan releases a book about growing up with his ‘Two Moms’

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Zach Wahls (Photo courtesy Lambda Legal)

You know him as “That kid from YouTube,” but the now 20-year-old loving son of two moms, Zach Wahls hopes he will soon be “That kid from the New York Times Best Seller” list.

“We’re all keeping our fingers crossed — it would be great to be a New York Times best selling author before I can legally have a drink to celebrate that fact,” says former Eagle Scout Wahls about his two-week-old memoir “My Two Moms,” which has been in or near the Amazon top 100 best sellers all week.

A major boost for Wahl’s book came last week with his April 30 appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” on Comedy Central, which caused his book about being raised with Iowa values by a committed lesbian couple to jump up the Amazon’s 22nd spot.

Before he was on the “Daily Show” or Ellen DeGeneres, Wahls was a viral video sensation. Not because he did a weird impression or blew something up, but because he gave an incredible, moving testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, which was considering sending to Iowans a Constitutional amendment that would undo a state Supreme Court decision to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

In his testimony, Wahls discussed his excellent grades and outstanding athletic achievements, opening his own business, studying engineering at the University of Iowa and his time in the Scouts where his mother Terry, whom he calls “short mom,” was a den mother, while “tall mom” Jackie helped out with the Cub Scouts.

“If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I would make you very proud,” Wahls says in one memorable moment of the video.

But this all-American boy — who says he can’t drink, but does enjoy a cigar every once in a while, and would like to celebrate the success of his book with one if he makes the Times list — is now turning his 15 minutes of fame into a career of advocacy.

His book chronicles the struggles his family faced over the years — such as mother Terry’s struggle with M.S. — and the values that kept them together.

On the phone from Asheville, N.C., on Monday, the day before the vote on Amendment One, he has a lot to say.

WASHINGTON BLADE: The book is organized in an unusual way. Why?

ZACH WAHLS: The book has 14 chapters and two appendices. The first chapter is “Be Prepared,” which is the Boy Scouts’ motto, and the last chapter is “Do a Good Turn Daily,” which is the Scouts’ slogan. And the middle 12 chapters are named and oriented after and on a tenant of the scout law. And the scout law is a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

Each chapter is an examination of that value, and how I learned it from my moms first, and how I learned it from the Boy Scouts, what it means to me, and what it means to the LGBT community in general.

BLADE: What was the “Daily Show” experience like?

WAHLS: It was the seven coolest minutes of my life.

And Jon, actually — unlike the host of literally every single other show — actually came to the green room backstage before the show and we had a nice little conversation. It was very clear that he had read the book, it was clear that he enjoyed the book and we just had a great little conversation.

I was standing in the green room, and what he does is that he starts talking very loudly as he’s walking toward you down the hall, so you can hear him coming, and he knows that you can hear him coming.

He’s just such a classy guy. Just 100 percent pure class.

I went to the rally to restore sanity last year, and it was the first time I’d ever ridden a Greyhound, actually. Like 24 hours on a Greyhound from Iowa to D.C. to the rally, and I’ve been watching the show since I was like 10. It was an amazing moment.

My moms and my sister were there, they had a great time too. It was great for sure.

BLADE: You seemed very confident and calm. Were you nervous?

WAHLS: Well he came backstage before, and that helped a lot. I was like almost about to have a nervous breakdown when he actually walked into the room. So that would have been what I was experiencing when I walked on stage had he not done that. So that was useful.

It was definitely a high stakes seven minutes. We managed to have a conversation and have a great time, and it was a blast.

But they told me before I went on, don’t make any jokes, and I kept trying not to.

BLADE: But you did! You did make a joke, and it landed well, the audience laughed!

WAHLS: I was having so much fun, I couldn’t help myself.

BLADE: What is the key to changing minds on the issue of rights for LGBT people?

WAHLS: The single most important task is continuing to systematically dismantle this myth of choice.

I think that’s why the YouTube video was so successful. I mean I never come out in the video and say I’m straight — and I’m hesitant to come to conclusions, because that’s something we shouldn’t do — but I think it is fairly clear in the video that I am a flaming straight man. So I think that the single most important development in any person’s movement on the continuum of opposition to LGBT rights to support for LGBT rights is the understanding that sexual orientation is not a choice. It is a pervasive misconception, and in many cases a pervasive lie that unfortunately many Americans do believe to be true.

But when you see people move beyond that misconception, it becomes very difficult for them to believe subsequently that homosexuality is immoral. Because if it’s not a choice, how could it be immoral? It’s much like historically saying someone is immoral or less than simply because of the color of their skin or the organs between their legs.

It used to be the belief that women were subservient to men and that blacks where inferior to whites, and that’s why — when it came to women’s suffrage or civil rights in the sixties — you had to address the underlying discrimination and the underlying beliefs before you could have the political solution that guaranteed equal rights, and that’s what we’re seeing here as well.

BLADE: One problem the LGBT movement often has with allies is commitment. Polling shows most Americans are with the LGBT activists on the big issues like employment, housing, benefits and even equal marriage is polling over 50 percent nationwide, but that doesn’t mean that supporters bother to leave the house to go vote for our rights in a special election like North Carolina’s. How do we inspire more allies to action?

WAHLS: To be clear, I don’t consider myself an ally. I might be straight cisgender man, but in my mind, I am a member of the LGBT community.

I know the last thing that anyone wants is to add another letter to the acronym, but we need to make sure as a movement we’re making a place for what we call “queer-spawn” to function and to be part of the community.

Because even though I’m not gay, I do know what its like to be hated for who I am. And I do know what its like to be in the closet, and like every other member of the LGBT community, I did not have a choice in this. I was born into this movement. I want to be explicitly clear first of all.

These fights affect me, they affect my family.

Now my best friend Nick, a straight guy, he’s an ally.

In terms of how we can have an upgraded commitment from straight allies, the fact is that if you look at the straight community, generally, there is a lot of excitement. And its not just support but excitement on this issue, because I think — in liberal politics generally — this is one of the few issues across the country in which we are not just standing our ground, but actually advancing as a progressive community.

Gay people can’t win this alone though. There aren’t enough people in the LGBT community itself to win this on their own. So in terms of what strategies are most effective? I think that making sure that you are illustrating these personal connections and engaging in this relationship building. Obviously, I come from a somewhat biased point of view, but if you have a close family member or a close friend who is openly LGBT, not only are you more likely to support the issue, but you’re more likely to act as well.

BLADE: There are lots of heartfelt YouTube videos out there with people explaining why LGBT rights matter. Why did yours blow up so big?

WAHLS: I know, its kind of crazy! Well, I think there are two factors. First is that it disrupted some expectations. When you think of whatever that stereotype of two women raising a kid is, a clean cut engineering student, Eagle Scout, entrepreneur — from Iowa to boot — probably isn’t that stereotype. And I think people enjoy seeing those stereotypes getting broken down.

I think more importantly and fundamentally, in that video, I hope you really do see me display my love for and commitment to my family. And I think it reminded a lot of people of their own love and their own commitment that they feel for their families. And I think that was really what struck home. The confidence, the passion, and at the end of the day, the love that was driving through.

BLADE: After three years of equal marriage, what are attitudes like across Iowa today on the issue of same-sex marriage?

WAHLS: Actually, The Onion had a great article, when marriage became legal, and the headline was “Hell opens up and swallows Davenport Iowa.” Obviously it was satire. The sky didn’t fall. Divorce rates are falling, straight people are still marrying straight people. They aren’t catching the gay. 92 percent of Iowans feel that they have not been affected by the Supreme Court ruling in any major way and 56 percent of Iowans oppose a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court decision [that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in Iowa].

It’s important to note that there is still a small disconnect between those who support same-sex marriage and those who would oppose its repeal. I think that this speaks to the Iowan ethos, which is the notion of “live and let live.” Even though they may not necessarily support same-sex marriage, they aren’t willing to take it away from couples like my parents.

BLADE: Until your video went viral on YouTube, yours was pretty much a quiet, average all-American family. How have your mothers handled all of the extra attention?

WAHLS: My moms have handled it really about as well as you can expect mothers to handle this kind of thing. It was definitely hard at some points for them. They see, obviously a lot of potential when you’re in the limelight to come under very sharp criticism and that happened.

There was a conservative radio host in Iowa who spent 20 minutes of his show going through my speech line by line by line accusing me of all kinds of rhetorical black magic. He seems to think I’m some kind of mastermind or something, which is quite flattering. But my moms hear that, and their protective instincts kick in, definitely.

They’ve been overwhelmingly proud, no doubt about it, but their primary concern is my safety. But they know I’m a grown man, I can handle myself — more often than not — so they’re mostly proud.

Although I do spend a lot less time at home, so I don’t see them or my sister nearly as frequently as I used to. And we’re all a little disappointed about that. My sister and I were both looking forward to the Avengers movie together for a long time, and she caved and saw it with “short mom,” which I was a little upset about. But I understand. I guess. [laughs]

Unlike her, I’m willing to wait til I get home to see it.

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Movies

‘Framing Agnes’ unearths historic trans narratives for engaging doc

Pioneering figure beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game

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Chase Joynt and Zackary Drucker in ‘Framing Agnes.’ (Image courtesy of Kino Lorber)

You might assume in 2022 that information about our cultural heroes from the past would be readily available. After all, we carry the entire repository of human knowledge, or at least the potential for accessing it, in the palm of our hands; if someone has made a significant impact in our history, even within the history of a specific community, it stands to reason that a factual chronicle of their life would exist.

What happens, though, when an important figure is part of a community that has been historically disregarded by the mainstream narrative? When the influence they’ve cast across the years has been buried deep in anonymity by a determined effort to marginalize or even erase the community they represent?

That’s the question explored in “Framing Agnes,” a new film from transmasculine Canadian director Chase Joynt (“No Ordinary Man”) that blends documentary, narrative, and speculative analysis as it goes on a deep dive into the buried case files of an infamous gender health study headed by psychiatrist Robert Stoller at UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s. The “Agnes” of the title refers to the pseudonymous “Agnes Torres,” who was one of dozens of individuals interviewed as part of the research about transgender identity.

Agnes, portrayed in Joynt’s movie by Zackary Drucker (“Transparent”), has become legendary within the trans community for successfully navigating an institutional system to access the gender-affirming care it would otherwise have denied her. At a time when surgery was only granted to intersex individuals, she lied about having taken estrogen to feminize her body from an early age, claiming instead to have been born with physiological characteristics of both genders; she was given access the procedure, which was performed in 1959, and continued to participate in the study. Years later, she confessed her ruse to Stoller, who was then forced to retract and rethink the findings which had formed part of the basis for his influential writings around transgender identity — writings, it should be said, that approached the subject as a “pathology” and considered it a psychological condition to be corrected or prevented.

It’s easy to see why Agnes would be a heroic figure to today’s trans community. After all, she not only beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game, she also managed to single-handedly sabotage the credibility of theories that were being used to legitimize anti-trans bias. Though her real identity may be forever hidden to us, her audacity alone is more than enough to elevate her to the status of trans icon.

She was, however, not the only one. The interviews – which were conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, Stoller’s collaborator on the study – also document the lived experiences of many other anonymous participants, and Joynt’s film positions Agnes as only the best-known among what was, in fact, a much wider and more diverse sampling of individuals, all with relatable stories about living a trans life in mid-century America. These include trans women of color as well as trans men, who were far outside the boundaries of what most Americans were willing to accept in an era when Christine Jorgensen – pretty, blonde, and “respectably” cultured – was the only face of “transsexuality” in the public eye.

In “Framing Agnes,” Joynt elevates a handful of these unsung trans pioneers alongside Agnes, collaborating with several notable trans performers – besides Drucker, Angelica Ross (“Pose”), Jen Richards (“Mrs. Fletcher”), Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira are among the cast – to re-enact their interviews with Garfinkel on camera. Eschewing a straightforward approach in favor of a more artful conceit, these segments are presented not in their clinical setting, but in the style of a Mike-Wallace-style TV interview of the era, with Joynt himself taking on the role of Garfinkel opposite each of his subjects. Even further, he intersperses the re-enactments themselves with footage and interviews documenting the creation of the segments – something akin to a “making of” special feature built right into the movie itself – and commentary focused on putting these historical snapshots of trans life into the context of what we now understand about transgender identity.

While it all might sound a trifle art-y, the filmmaker maintains a loose, accessible, even playful tone to the style – while still respecting the subject matter, and the subjects – that no doubt contributed to the movie’s win of both the Audience Award and the “NEXT” Innovator Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival. Rather than interrupting the flow, this stylistic format illuminates the material as we go, giving us a chance to share the insights of the artists as they work to bring these nuggets of history to life, and offering an opportunity to reflect on how these long-hidden tales of queer existence connect to our own in the here and now.

Yet there are times in “Framing Agnes” – particularly in its latter half – when one can’t help but feel frustrated by a sense of distance. We are ultimately given only snippets of these compelling narratives and left only with conjectured facts that can be extrapolated from contextual circumstance or by reading between the lines; the onscreen discussion around them – helped immeasurably by the availability of language around the subject matter that didn’t exist at the time they were recorded – serves to enlighten, to amplify, and to humanize, but we are never allowed to get deeply enough inside them to really know the people at their center.

That, of course, is the answer to the question we posed in the beginning. When the record of our heroes has been suppressed, all we have left are icons. We can surmise, project, interpret, and guess as much as we want, but we can never know much, if anything, about them beyond whatever words they may have left us. In the case of Agnes and her fellow interviewees, those words reveal much about what it was like to be trans in their time, and verify many of our assumptions about it while contradicting others. 

They tell us things about their feelings, their relationships, their self-esteem, their survival tactics, and many of the other universal touchstones of experience that can evoke solidarity between generations an era apart; beyond these things, they tell us nothing, and we can only rely, like the artists who came together to create “Framing Agnes,” on our imaginations.

It helps that each of the performers seems deeply invested in their character – further proof, if any were needed, of the value of lived experience over outsider assumption when it comes to acting in such roles – and that the vintage segments are executed with meticulous skill and attention to detail. And if we are denied, perhaps, the opportunity to fully access the lives of the people Joynt’s movie profiles, we are welcomed into the conversation about them – indeed, into the whole creative process – by the artists who brought them to us.

“Framing Agnes” is currently in a limited theatrical run before expanding to select cities nationwide. If it doesn’t make it to a screen near you, don’t worry – it’s slated for a streaming debut early next year.

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Music & Concerts

Trans soprano leads glorious 18th century ‘Christmas Oratorio’

Misgivings about fitting into music world prove unwarranted

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Soprano Elijah McCormack 

Washington Bach Consort presents
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Saturday Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.
Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, Md.
$25 – $89
Strathmore.org

When it comes to opera, Elijah McCormack, 28, is typically cast as children. The talented trans male soprano looks young and sings high, so outside of an educational setting where he’s played adult parts, playing extreme youths has become a sort of musical niche. 

“It would be really cool to do a baroque opera and actually sing the primary male lead,” he opines good naturedly before avowing a passion for both opera and his other work – singing sacred music as a grownup at far-flung concerts and festivals.

On Saturday, McCormack joins the Washington Bach Consort at Strathmore as the soprano soloist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a glorious 18th century Baroque telling of the Nativity, sometimes billed as Germany’s “seasonal equivalent to the English-speaking world’s “Messiah.”

 “The oratorio is lovely. There are two soprano arias: one is bouncy and exciting and the other meditative. I like them both,” he says. 

While this is his first time performing at Strathmore, he’s sung with the Washington Bach Consort before. The consort’s artistic director Dana Marsh met McCormack at Indiana University’s Historical Performance Institute (where Marsh is a professor and McCormack graduated in 2019 with a master’s of music) In recent years, Marsh has invited him to sing with the consort as both soloist and ensemble member. McCormack cites Marsh as a formative influence and great help. 

McCormack grew up in Connecticut (where he’s currently based) surrounded by classical music. In addition to a lawyer father passionate about the Romantics (Mahler, Strauss, Wagner), there were many choir practices and performances at the local Episcopalian church, and some pre-transition musical theater parts in high school including Grandma Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

“I liked musical theater; it didn’t like me,” he says wryly.  

During his undergrad years at Skidmore, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, McCormack was a studio art major with a concentration in painting who did loads of singing too. Still, as a trans male soprano, he wasn’t sure there would be a place for him in the professional musical performance world. 

In 2016, near the end of his senior year, something rare and wonderful happened. Skidmore uncharacteristically staged a fully produced Baroque opera, “Serse” by Handel, and McCormack was cast as the secondary male lead, a role originally written for a castrato: “That experience of singing was really affirming for me. I suddenly knew there were roles for me and music that suited my voice.” 

He had realized he was trans at 17 and transitioned socially at Skidmore. “For me personally, it was a fairly uncomfortable way for me to spend my first years in college. At one point, I’d thought about hormone therapy and figured that “Serse” would be the last hurrah of my soprano voice. But because I loved singing soprano so much, I didn’t do it.”

Other changes were made without regret, however. He credits top surgery in 2014 with improving both his general quality of life as well as his singing abilities. No longer having to bind his chest, like many trans men and trans masculine people do, his singing markedly improved.

Also, misgivings about fitting into the music world have proved unwarranted. 

“Always, walking into an audition room is the hardest part. I tend to think they know I’m queer but maybe they’re unsure exactly what flavor of the rainbow I am,” says the prize-winning singer. “So far, being visibly gender nonconforming, especially in a traditional space like you typically find with classical music, hasn’t elicited negative reactions. People don’t understand everything, but I’d say the world is catching up in terms of how to talk to and about people of various gender experiences.”

At over two hours is Bach’s Christmas Oratorio too heavy for the casual listener? 

“Depends on attention span,” he says. “But as things go, it’s accessible — fun, joyful, and a good time. And it’s not one of the usual holiday things you’re likely to have already seen a million times.”

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Out & About

Eckington Hall plans ‘Holidaze’ market

Jewelry, art, ceramics, vintage clothing, food, beer and more at event

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The holidays are here, bringing markets and bazaars to the area.

Eckington Hall and DC Bouldering Project will join forces for “Eckington Place Holidaze,” a holiday market, on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m along the Woonerf on Quincy Lane. 

The event will feature vendors selling a variety of goods such as jewelry, art, ceramics, vintage clothing, candles, books, collectibles, food and beer. Some of the vendors include Denise Lee Art, Love Soultry, Laura Bryant Art, Simple Pleasures and Capital Vintage, among others. 

For more information, visit Eckington Hall’s website.

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