Zach Wahls was a 19-year-old college kid last year when he addressed the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on that state's proposal to ban same-sex marriage.
His impassioned speech which included a description of his positive life experiences as a straight man born to two lesbians through artificial insemination made him an overnight YouTube sensation as well as a heralded activist in the LGBT community.
Wahls' words weren't enough to persuade his home state to veto a ban on gay marriage. But a year later, the man has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, "Good Morning America" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," among other media outlets, to speak in favor of civil unions. He has penned a book, My Two Moms, which describes his fairly ordinary life growing up with his sister in a home headed by two mothers. An Eagle Scout, Wahls was among the most vocal detractors of the Boy Scouts of America's decision this summer to continue a ban on gay scout leaders and participants.
And he appeared at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, where he thanked President Barack Obama for supporting gay marriage.
So it was a bit serendipitous that Wahls, with his packed scheduled, was spotted at a political rally by a Utahn who noticed the activist was wearing a mountain biking hat with a Moab logo.
It turns out one of the country's most visible LGBT activists is a fan of Moab's outdoors scene and one reason Wahls was more than happy to sign on as a guest speaker at the second annual Moab Pride Festival. The event is expected to double in attendance from its inaugural year in 2011, organizers say, and Wahls is featured on a list of several lecturers and entertainers.
"I'm participating in Moab Pride for two reasons. First, I've been to Moab before, it's one of the most beautiful parts of the country and has an amazing community to celebrate. Second, I think it's really important to be a part of reminding folks in places where we still have a long ways to go on LGBTQ rights of the possibility that lies before us," said Wahls.
"I'll be talking about the importance of both coming together as a community to live, work and celebrate, and of recognizing our individual rights of self-determination and self-governance. Above all, though, it's a message that the power of love is greater than the power of fear."
Amy Stocks, the festival's co-organizer, said the event is gaining popularity. Stocks said about 300 people attended last year's Moab festival, and this year as many as 1,000 are expected.
"Last year's event was really successful being a first-year event. It's just kind of getting its footing," said Stocks. "A lot more people will be coming this year."
Besides Wahls, Utah native Justin Utley, now a singer who lives in New York, will travel to Moab to perform at the festival. DJ Jen Woolfe, of San Francisco, is also on the lineup.
Stocks said Salt Lake City's pride festival is proof that Utah communities can sustain successful celebrations for the LGBT communities. Last year, more straight people attended Moab's festival than those who identify as LGBT, she said.
"I think we're hoping to really create a community event. We're calling it Moab Pride, not gay pride. It's a way for the community to celebrate diversity; it has a family-oriented feel," she said. "Moab believes in embracing diversity."
Utley said he is pleased to be performing at Moab's festival and sees it as a sign that the discussion about gay rights is expanding.
"It's a sign of progress and that the dialogue of equality and other LGBT issues is growing outside of major cities," Utley said.
Wahls noted his trip to Utah is one of dozens of speaking engagements he'll squeeze in before Election Day connected to the nationwide discussion of gay rights. He has put his engineering studies at the University of Iowa on hold as his activism continues to gain steam.
"It was one of the few free weekends I have this fall (I'll be home for 48 hours between now and Election Day) so the timing literally could not have been better," said Wahls.
Moab Pride Festival
7:30 p.m. • Kick Off Meet & Greet, Moulin Rouge Inspired Orange Party; Frankie D's Bar & Grill 44 W. 200 North, Moab
10 a.m. • Visibility March at Swany Park, corner of 100 West and Park Road
12 p.m. • Moab Pride Festival with special guest Zach Wahls; Old City Park Road, Spanish Valley
9 p.m. • DJ Jen Woolfe peforms; World Famous Woody's Tavern, 221 S. Main St., Moab
Source • www.moabpride.org