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A simple act of classroom disobedience turned 11-year-old Will Phillips into one of the country’s youngest — and targeted — gay-rights advocates.
Two years ago, despite repeated urging from teachers in his West Fork, Ark., fifth-grade classroom, Will refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “There are those parts about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ and I realized that’s just not true,” Will told the Current last week. “It’s not true when gay people don’t have the same rights as everyone else, not if they can’t get married and, in some places, can’t even adopt children like everyone else. … I feel like I’m lying if I say that pledge.”
The act rocketed Will, who will help lead this year’s San Antonio gay pride parade, into the national spotlight, cheered on by many for his outspoken activism at such a young age. And while he’s now a celebrity of sorts outside Arkansas, life for Will and his family has grown difficult inside their small hometown.
“School got harder. I know some people were angry, and kept calling me things like ‘gay wad’ and other things I don’t even want to repeat,” he said. “I know I had at least one death threat.”
Will’s mother, Laura Phillips, said she and her husband began home-schooling Will soon after his story gained widespread attention, saying, “It got to where it was almost like teacher-sanctioned bullying.” Will, she said, will likely stay out of public schools until high school, when he’ll move to another district.
Will has long been motivated by a desire to see people treated fairly, she said. While just in preschool, Will fumed when other school kids taunted one of his good friends, a child with severe speech delays. “He’d get so mad when people would make fun of his friend. He was like this little four-year-old vigilante who was out to solve this problem, wanting to argue about it. He always had that mindset.”
These days neighbors will sometimes chide Will as he rides his bike through the neighborhood. “One neighbor just started yelling obscenities at him, told him to get his ‘f-ing faggot ass’ back home,” Laura said.
Recently, Will was even kicked out of a friend’s birthday party. “The girl’s dad wanted him out of the house because he was that little ‘blankety blank’ that wouldn’t stand for the flag and loves the gays. … It caused this scene just because Will was there,” she said. “Stuff like that still pops up sometimes around here. My husband and I have lost friends.”
Last summer Will helped lead his first pride parade in Fayetteville, Ark., angering Christian conservative groups like the American Family Association, who called his participation in the parade tantamount to child abuse. In a message sent out to thousands of supporters at the time, the organization said, “He’s obviously just parroting the nonsense he’s been told by manipulative adults. For gay activists to trot out this child and make him the poster child for promoting unnatural sexual expression is a form of child abuse.”
But any abuse Will remembers came from the Christian set. “I remember people saying awful things. … I remember protestors, the ones that were there yelling, they were the ones being vulgar,” he said.
Despite the reaction at home, Will says his activism won’t stop. “I mean, it’s not just people who are gay, there are other groups that aren’t being treated fairly,” he said. “Women aren’t always treated the same, African Americans, at least here, aren’t always treated fairly, and I believe everyone should have the same rights.” •
Pride San Antonio’s parade will start at the corner of Dewey and Main at 9 pm on Saturday, July 2, heading south and ending at Lexington and Euclid. Pride SA will also hold a viewing area for the parade at Crockett Park at 1300 N Main Ave.