There’s a fair amount of research that confirms what most of us know–humans are hard-wired to respond more emotionally to individual stories of hardship than to news of large-scale tragedies. We may sympathize and even send contributions when we hear of famine in Africa, for example, but we are much more likely to empathize and offer help when we hear the story of one person’s suffering, or one family’s struggle. Any PR person will confirm that the best way to get public attention for a cause is to tell a story.
Last night, my husband and I heard a story. We were at Lambda Legal’s annual fundraising dinner, and the speaker was Zach Wahls, the 19-year old whose testimony to the Iowa legislature went viral on You Tube last year. (If you missed it, you can watch it here.) The Iowa legislature was proposing to amend the state constitution to reverse the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision that the state must recognize same-sex marriages, a decision allowing Zach’s two moms to finally marry.
Zach is obviously a young man with a bright future–assured beyond his years, comfortable speaking to a large crowd, and able to convey both humor and passion. Above all, he seemed real–a bright kid who simply got fed up with politicians using his family as a wedge issue, butting into his family’s life to score political points.
He began by answering the questions he says he most frequently gets. To the question “Are you gay?” (he’s not) he responds with another question: “Does a fork turn into a spoon because they occupy the same drawer?” To questions about growing up without a father figure to provide a role model, he concedes there are differences. “When you are raised by two moms, you learn to put the toilet seat down, and to ask for directions.”
Listening to Zach tell his story, I thought again about the surprisingly rapid cultural change we’ve experienced just in my lifetime. When I was Zach’s age, no one even discussed homosexuality. The word “gay” meant happy, and no one had ever heard the term GLBT. When Stonewall set off the gay-rights movement, gays were still reviled. The goal was basic civil rights, and protection from harassment. Today, a significant portion of the population lives in states that recognize same-sex marriage, and although there are still plenty of issues and lots of bigotry, full equality is just a matter of time.
I think this unusually swift change was a result of the decision to encourage people to “come out” and tell their stories. The efforts of Lambda, the ACLU, and numerous other civil liberties groups would have been less effective without those stories.
Zach’s story was compelling, but there are so many others. We need to listen to them.