Boy who attends Arkansas UU church protests unequal treatment of GLBT people.
On Monday, October 5, Will, whose family attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas, refused to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance in his fifth-grade classroom at school. That action stemmed from a conversation he’d had with his parents, Laura and Jay Phillips, about equal rights.
In Will’s own words: “At the end of the Pledge it says ‘liberty and justice for all.’ But there isn’t justice for people who are gay. And there’s a lot of racism and sexism still, and there are lots of people who can’t get health care.”
So Will, after thoughtful consideration, decided he wasn’t going to stand up any longer for the Pledge until it represented everyone. And since October 5, he hasn’t.
It hasn’t been easy. For the first four days the teacher––a substitute who knew Will’s family––kept trying to get him to stand up. On the fourth day, when she suggested that Will’s mother and grandmother would want him to stand up, Will got upset. He said something he knows he shouldn’t have. He told her, “With all due respect, ma’am, you can go jump off a bridge.”
That got him sent to the principal’s office. And onto the international stage. When Will’s mother, Laura Phillips posted about the incident on Facebook, several of her friends alerted the news media. Will has been interviewed on CNN and on several radio stations across the country as well as by local media. His story has been posted on The Huffington Post and many other blog sites.
Since early October Will has endured harassment at school from many of his peers. While some support him, many others do not, calling him names and playing pranks on him. But the issue was important enough to Will to take a stand. Appearing on CNN November 16, he said, “I've grown up with a lot of people, and good friends, that are gay. . . . I think they should have the rights all people should.”
Laura said neither she nor Jay, who both work for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, coached or encouraged Will to sit during the Pledge. “We started getting emails right away from people who assumed he was parroting what he hears at home,” she said. “But this was entirely Will’s idea. He thought about it and told us that ‘If people don’t speak up, then nothing ever changes.’”
She added, “This is just Will being Will,” noting that he has always thought deeply about issues.
Laura said the family has friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The Phillipses have attended pride parades and stood up for the rights of gay and lesbian neighbors. A constitutional amendment passed in Arkansas last year bars same-sex couples from adopting or being foster parents.
Laura said the family found and began attending the UU congregation in Fayetteville 20 months ago. “We love it,” she said. “We feel fortunate to have a place that backs up all that we are teaching Will. People at church have been very supportive.”
Shortly after Will began refusing to stand up, he got up at church and shared his experience during joys and concerns. “People stood up and cheered for five minutes,” he said, adding, “I like that we can think all these different things and cherish our differences at church.”
Will said he doesn’t think he’s changed any minds at school by his opposition to the Pledge. Laura disagrees. She believes Will’s action has prompted conversations all over the country about what is right. She said she is bolstered by the internet response. Although some is negative, much of it is positive. “The farther away you get from West Fork, the more vocal and widespread the support is,” she said. “Will has given the equality movement such hope. I’ve had days where I just cried at my desk over the positive responses we’ve gotten.”
Will’s action also provided a teachable moment at school, she said. “The school has been wonderful. The principal talked to the teachers and they have been able to cut out some of the bullying. Will said the teachers are really paying attention. And of course, we’ve all talked about, if this is what my son, the straight ally, is going through, what about the GLBT kids who have to put up with this every day?”
Will said, “The school district was not being bad. They handled it perfectly,” once the initial incident was past. Will said he doesn’t expect to stand up any time soon.
Laura said many people at church have taken it upon themselves to search out negative blog comments on the web about Will and respond to them. “It’s really frustrating to Will that people are being so immature,” said Laura. The Rev. David Hunter, co-minister of the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, said, “We’re very proud of Will and what he did. He’s very articulate and very brave.”
Will may get a trip to San Francisco for his principles. “This week the National Center for Lesbian Rights contacted us,” said Laura. “They want to name Will a Fierce Ally for 2009 and they want us to come to San Francisco in April to accept it.”
Jay Phillips said he’s proud of his son for standing up for his principles. “The important thing is he has created a dialogue, a conversation, especially among the kids. There’s an increased awareness now. The inertia of complacency can be a difficult thing to overcome, but he’s started that process.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.