By: Matthew Edward Baker
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about generals returning to Rome after a successful conquest, who would parade through the city to be showered with praise by the people. As a condition of their glory, the Empire required that someone stand at the back of the general’s chariot and whisper in his ear, “Thou art still mortal. Thou art still mortal.” The moral of the story is simple: avoid hubris.
Last fall—in case you somehow missed it—this ten-year-old fifth grader from tiny West Fork, Arkansas made national headlines after refusing to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Why all the fuss? Because Will Phillips won’t stand for the Pledge until “liberty and justice for all” exists in the real world, particularly for lesbians and gays seeking the right to marry. Since launching this sustained act of civil disobediance, Will has appeared on CNN, was the lead story on Huffington Post, received a special phone call of thanks from a certain movie star (who shall remain nameless), and conquered the hearts of countless Americans with his brave act of civil disobedience.
Getting this kind of attention for taking such a principled stand at such a young age could easily go to a guy’s head. However, his parents, Laura and Jay Phillips, have done their utmost to ensure that Will stays humble. They were the first to teach him about hubris, and Jay reminds him of his mortality whenever he sees the need, like when a satellite-equipped truck pulls up to their front yard to capture an interview. Our interviewing techniques here at thenextfamily tend to be less invasive or ego-boosting, however. Instead, the Phillips family invited me, via telephone from San Francisco, into their home last month, passing their phone around as they hunkered down for a snowy Arkansas Friday night.
On Will’s principled (refusal to) stand
M: It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Laura: Thank you.
M: And congratulations on making it through the media onslaught.
Laura: [laughs] It could have been worse and I’m sure it would have been if we hadn’t put the breaks on. Will was very adamant from the beginning that he had something to say. We just didn’t know that him having something to say would result in John Stewart knowing my son’s name.
Me: It must be nice knowing that Mick Foley is there for you.
L: I actually emailed the CNN producer to ask if she had a contact at the Daily Show to tell John Stewart ‘Thank you,’ because it really made Will’s day after the horrible week he’d been through. She said, ‘Well actually if Will could get out of school and I can arrange an interview between him and Mick Foley…,’ and I said, ‘No no no no no, I just wanna tell John Stewart thank you. No more interviews.’ [laughs]
M: You mentioned that it had been a horrible week for Will?
Laura: The week of November 16th when the CNN interview aired, that Monday, he ended up needing to leave school by about nine o’clock. I had a friend go pick him up and check him out of school and take him to a secure, undisclosed location because the bullying got so bad. People at work were sending me texts, ‘Holy crap! Will’s on the front page of the Huffington Post!’ No, he’s not. Oh my god he is…
So anyway I talked to the counselor and she said, ‘There’s no bullying because I’d know about it.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, because you see everything?’ And I told her my concern and our fear for Will was that we didn’t – the school has an obligation to keep him safe and to make it a safe place for him – but, we wanted her to be aware that all this is going on and he was getting harassed. And I told the counselor, ‘You know, my concern is that if my son the ten year old straight ally is going through all of this, what about the kids who are starting to identify as LGBT?’
M: So, what happened in town? How did this play out for you guys?
Laura: In West Fork, not so great. Again, little bitty town. A lot of people around here I went to school with. They’re on the police force, they teach at the school, they’re related to the mayor, they work at the gas station, they go to church with my mom –
Jay [in background]: We get a lot of support.
Laura: We do get a lot of support, but it’s been farther away we get from town, the more support we get. There have been parents who have told their kids not to play with Will, but they still do because Will’s a cool kid. It’s gotten better, because it’s died down. There were all these rumors going around about stuff Will was doing in school and that we were doing as parents and it was just awful. Social media, social networking sites, they have their place but they’re such fodder for gossips. [laughs]
M: Has your Mom been understanding? She sounds more conservative.
Laura: Bless her heart. Bless her heart. She doesn’t agree with what Will did, but she fully supports him in his right to do it. And she understands our views. She doesn’t agree with them, but she’s supportive with what we’re trying to teach the kids.
M: Has she had any run-ins with people at her church or anything like that?
Laura: No, mostly just people saying ‘I heard what happened and I’ll be praying for your family.’ Because, you know, obviously, we’re linked with the devil. [laughs]
M: It was great that Jay appeared with Will on CNN. I think a lot of Dads wouldn’t have wanted to do that considering the subject matter.
Laura: Oh, no, Jay was so proud of Will. He had the courage to do something, he had the conviction to back it up, and the compassion to go forward with it. …Jay was just proud as can be.
It was so cute, during the interview, they sent a truck from Dallas over night to the house, set up TV cameras, wired the house for sound, found two matching chairs and found out Will was too short, so he ended up sitting on a dictionary and three nursing textbooks.
M: Who decided that Jay would appear with Will on CNN?
Laura: We both talked to the CNN producer and I think they went with Jay because he’s more moderate.
M: They knew he would roll his eyes at the right moment.
L: While I would have been shouting ‘Fight the Power Brother! That’s right!’ And they don’t want that. [laughs]
Jay: One of the things that comes along with being a ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir,’ kind of Southern type – generally when someone makes a request – ‘Would you mind, we’d like to do the interview with you’ – I’m not going to raise a fuss. Also if we were going to introduce ourselves to a national or international audience, I could see the logic of having the moderate make that introduction and then letting the more radical voice speak after the fact. Y’know, first impressions. When you do the one line blurb about what our family’s about, you really want it to be ‘believes in equality’ not ‘hates America.’ [laughs]
We had a local news station, apparently they ran a really nice story that they’d strewn together from a bunch of different sources on their station once late at night, but their website said, and I quote, ‘Local Boy says Pledge is Lie.’ [laughs] So I called up the station and I spoke with the news director and said, ‘No offense sir, but why don’t you just hire a bunch of goons and have them go down to the school and beat my kid up?’ So, yeah, one part obedience, one part prudence.
M: Did you feel the coverage was fair?
Jay: It’s interesting…My father, the night before, came over and pleaded with us not to go through [with the CNN interview]. And as a father, that was really hard to take. You know, as a father, I’m supposed to protect my family. As a husband I’m supposed to protect my family. I told him, and I told the family, if I was a 1950s dad with the power to bind and loose, which I’m not, even then I don’t think I would’ve felt ethically right to tell my child ‘You need to stay in your arena, you’re just a kid, this is bigger than you are.’ I guess to answer your question I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it but I was absolutely proud as punch of Will and had absolutely no problem having his back. The interviewers were very nice, and it was a good experience.
M: But it was a tough week.
Jay: It was a tough week for everyone. But he knew exactly what he was getting himself into. I’ve always felt that if a child is old enough to act they’re old enough to know, and if they want to try, within reason, you know, let ‘em! We live in a country where a lot of times you’ll see children are given false confidence, you know, your little league team lost every game in the season and you’re given a trophy anyway. I’m not necessarily opposed to that but at the same time, I know lots of people I knew as a kid who get into the adult world and, oh, wait a second, all of a sudden everyone tells you you’re not special. The world can eat you up. That false confidence sometimes can be damaging.
…I was very adamant about the things he was attempting to do, and going back to when he was little, if he wanted to try something, to give him the option to try and possibly fail. Because if you fail you learn character from that, you learn life lessons from that. And if you succeed, you gain confidence from that, real hard won confidence. And that can pay dividends in the future.
M: Speaking of confidence, have you seen any pride in Will?
Jay: …I would say he’s prideful. Sometimes he can be prideful to the point where if he feels like someone’s talking down to him you can tell it really grinds his ears. But it’s a self-confidence pride, it’s not hubris.
Laura: He really throws people for a loop because he has so much to say. We were both young when we had Will. You always as a parent question, ‘Well, am I doing the right thing? Am I being too strict? Am I not being strict enough? Am I feeding them enough broccoli? Am I potty training them at the right time?’ You know, all these different things that you question yourself on all the time. But I think this whole experience has taught Jay and me that we must be doing something right, and maybe there’s hope for the other two as well. It’s been really gratifying to see these things we’ve been trying to instill in him make a difference. I think as parents that what it boils down to, you want your kids to do better than you and to be better than you.
On their family, and its commitment to equality
M: Tell me a little bit about your family’s story.
Laura: I’m from West Fork, and Jay is from Fayatteville…
Jay [in the background]: Whoo-hoo!
Laura: …which is about ten minutes north of us. West Fork has about 2,000 people.
M: What do you do there?
L: I have a degree in nursing and currently work at the University Health Center for the University of Arkansas. …And Jay works for the transit department and drives disabled passengers and does paratransit in Fayetteville. So we carpool back and forth to work.
M: And clearly support access to healthcare and public transportation.
Laura: I also wear a lot of tie-dye and wear lots of Birkenstocks. [laughs]
M: Do you stand out?
Laura: Yes, but there’s a small pocket of people that we’ve found. People hear Arkansas
Me: You said [in an Arkansas Times article that appeared after the Pledge incident] that you had always raised Will “to be aware of what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s fair.” You also mentioned that you have taken him to Pride parades. Reading this, I could imagine a sort of stereotype person from the Bible Belt – you know the stereotypes…
Laura: Oh yeah. We’re related to the stereotypes, okay?
M: Fair enough. I imagine a person like this saying, ‘Well there you go, you’re just brainwashing him.’
Laura: Well, yeah, obviously. [laughs] …Jay is the conservative one of the two of us. I’m the one who says, ‘Let’s make a poster and do something about this! Go chain ourselves to a tree!’ Jay’s the moderate. If you can believe it, I married a moderate.
…But he goes with us [to the parades]. We started going to the Pride parades—
M: Where was this?
Laura: It was in Fayetteville. West Fork does not have a Pride parade.
M: But Fayetteville, Arkansas has a Pride parade?
Laura: Fayetteville has a pretty good-sized Pride parade, yeah.
M: See, this is one of those things that you don’t think about when you spend all your time on the coasts.
Laura: We’re lucky that Fayetteville is a college town and it’s a pretty liberal town. It’s been referred to as the Athens of the Ozarks. There are a lot of artists, there are a lot of musicians.
…Anyway, we explained the Pride parade to him. He’s always grown up knowing
that some people are gay and some people are straight, sometimes you grow up to marry a girl, sometimes you grow up to marry a boy, you’ll know what’s right when the time comes. When he was about six he came home and said, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure I’m straight.’ I said, ‘How do you know that?’ He said, ‘Well, I met a girl named Roxie….’
…He’s always known there were differences. So when we went to the Pride parade it was, you know, just another thing. He’s gotten more and more proud of it over the years because he’s showing his support for people he cares about. He’s showing his support for people who are often left out of things or can’t be themselves. So he takes great pride in making posters and making signs to put on floats and doing his part to be that straight ally in the area.
M: When did you come to be supportive of gay rights?
Laura: 1993, when I was a junior in high school. I was eating lunch one day in a classroom by myself and a friend of mine walks in, bursts into tears and says, ‘I’m gay and I want to kill myself.’ Of course, there’s no handbook for a girl who grew up an evangelical Christian in West Fork, Arkansas to deal with this. All I could do was tell him, ‘Yeah, you’re gay. We all kind of guessed that. It’s no big deal, please don’t kill yourself. I’m gonna talk to some people and figure out the right thing to tell you.’ So we talked about it and he felt better because somebody else knew. And then a week later somebody else came out to me.
M: Were you still a practicing Christian at the time?
Laura: I had stopped going to church by that time. I still believe in basic Christian tenets with a few caveats. Jay was raised Catholic and is recovering. [laughs]
Our family right now goes to a Unitarian church, which really fits what we need for our kids because we want our kids growing up with the ideals of a Judeo-Christian religious education without the hate. In the church I grew up in the pastor told racist, sexist, homophobic jokes from the pulpit. He encouraged us to love the sinner and hate the sin, but we don’t have to be nice to the sinner. If you know anyone that’s gay just write them off. Our youth group had a ‘slave auction’ as a fund-raiser once, and when I griped about the name he told me I was being picky and told my mom about it. You know, stuff like that.
…So early on I was like, I just can’t deal with this. But we love the Unitarian congregation. The first time we went we got back in the van and asked Will what he thought and he said, ‘It’s great! It’s like a church for nerds!’ So it got the Will seal of approval.
…Anyway, I wanted to be able to do the right thing and not raise my kids with this horrible veil of homophobia that just hangs over this entire state. Jay and I had talked about this even before we knew Will was coming along. I had very strong views about how I wanted to raise our kids when we had them. I didn’t want any racial jokes – of course, Jay would never do that, which is how I knew he was perfect. He never made any off-color jokes about ethnic groups, about women, about gay people, about anything you would find offensive. There are never any derogatory terms used in our household. We don’t do that and that was something I was always very adamant about. It’s not nice. Just be nice to people! That’s the basics.
M: Tell me about Will? Were there any warning signs that he might do this sort of thing?
Laura: He’s always been very verbal, very outspoken, ridiculously spooky intelligent and Jay and I try to feed that as much as we can. …
He had a friend when he was younger who had a lot of speech development problems. And the kids would make fun of him. He asked why they were teasing him and I said ‘They think he talks funny.’ He said, ‘But that’s not fair, he can’t help it.’ I said, ‘I know, but some people just make fun of people who are different.’ And he said, ‘But they shouldn’t do that, that’s not fair!’ I said, ‘I know, that’s just the way people are!’ He said, ‘Well I’m gonna talk to them and make them stop!’ So he went on this little five-year -old rampage around his preschool to make them stop teasing his friend because he couldn’t help the way he talked. I mean, it was nothing that attracted national media attention, but he has always been very fair-minded.
M: So Will has clearly had exposure to progressive values and beliefs, but, living in Arkansas, he has obviously had to deal with opposing viewpoints.
Laura: Here’s a good way to illustrate this: When we go to my father’s house or to Will’s great grandmother’s house, we pull into the driveway and we say, ‘Okay, what are the three things we’re not going to talk about?’ And Will very obediently says, ‘Politics, religion and smooching.’ …So you don’t discuss anything of a heterosexual or homosexual nature in polite company, you don’t discuss religion in polite company, and you don’t discuss politics in polite company, even if they start it. And this is the credo that we chant all the way up to grandma’s house because we have such different views, and we just bite our tongues because we love the family, and we don’t want to offend them with our crazy liberal ways. So, he’s learned the hard way that you can have different views, but you can’t cram them down peoples’ throats, because they’re not willing to listen sometimes.
…Eventually you learn the skill of broaching these subjects delicately – I’m still learning those skills.
M: But Jay, you’re more moderate?
Jay: When Laura said I was a moderate, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool committed moderate. One of the hard things about that is that it’s really easy for me – and of course I’m a left of center moderate, and way left on social issues – but I very much enjoy talking with people with whom I don’t agree and who I don’t understand and not just engaging and discussing with them but genuinely trying to put myself in their shoes.
One thing I’ve found is, especially with the older generation, I have people that I know and love who when they were kids, in their world, homosexuals did not exist. And when they did find out about them, they were either a dirty joke or were spoken of in the same way we discuss pedophiles today. So, culturally, for these people who feel like this, it’s like for you and me, if fifty years from now pedophilia was considered normal and we were expected not only to respect it but, you know, from our point of view, cherish it. It’s that big a shift, it’s that big a mental leap for some people. All I can say is we’re not going to be able to change some peoples’ minds.
But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that progress is very much an American trait. It’s something culturally that Americans have in common. Tolerance is an American virtue. It’s maybe not one we always exemplify to the best, and throughout our history there’s been an ebb and flow, but there’s always been an incremental march of progression toward more tolerance. It’s really hard sometimes when you’re in the boat rockin’ back and forth to keep your eye on the high watermark, but rising waters lift all boats. So eventually I have absolutely no doubt that we will get there.
I keep reminding myself when I get frustrated that Martin Luther King couldn’t have done what he did in the twenties. The culture wouldn’t have gone along. The civil rights movement couldn’t have happened in the twenties. That’s frustrating in a way, and I think most of us feel that, but on the other hand it’s encouraging to see that there is progress being made. Even if we take two or three steps back at a time, we’re still moving the ball forward and we’re still making that incremental progress that over time adds up. It’s aggregate.
M: In getting into other peoples’ shoes, have you ever managed to get them into yours, gotten them to change their minds?
Jay: Honestly, I would probably have to say no. I’ve had times where I’ve probably given people a moment’s pause. Actually, here’s an example I know. I know someone who is going through a divorce, and it has the potential to be an ugly divorce, and he was complaining to me the other day about it. …My general understanding is that the guy is pretty conservative. …[He] was telling me how his lawyer told him he’s gotta give up his dog. He’s been married to his wife for ten years and he’s gotta give up his dog which she brought into the marriage. His lawyer’s telling him that that’s pre-marriage property, she gets it. And I commiserated with him that that sucks, that’s bad. But I also said look on the bright side, you could be like my other friend [a gay man in the process of ending a fourteen year relationship that likely would have been made official had it been an option]. He’d kill for a lawyer and a judge. He’s just kind of gotta make due. There’s a mortgage to deal with, and it’s like two commanders on a missile sub: If they both don’t turn their keys….
…I think that gave him a moment’s pause. He didn’t really have anything to say. But the problem with most people I talk to is that you’re dealing with a belief. When you believe that homosexuality is wrong, when you believe that these people aren’t like us, whoever we are, then, that’s a belief, and beliefs are really hard to change because they don’t have to be rational. You can offer all the rational arguments you want and at the end of the day they’re just gonna say, ‘Well, you need to read on the Bible,’ or ‘You need to pray on that.’ When you get down to details and get them argued into a corner, they can always hit the ‘Well, this is what I believe’ ejection switch. So, I would say I’ve given people a moment of pause now and then, but by and large a belief is a belief and it takes something life-altering most often times to change someone’s belief.
On the future
M: Is Will still sitting out the Pledge?
M: Has anyone joined him?
Laura: [To Will] Has anyone joined you? [To me] Yes, five kids that he knows of. Then a friend of ours has a twelve-year-old at a different school in Fayetteville that is sitting down. There’s a school somewhere in Maryland where there’s a group of thirty to forty high schoolers who are sitting down in solidarity with Will. So there’s this sort of grassroots ‘We’re gonna sit out the Pledge’ movement.
M: Has Will done anything to persuade people one way or another?
Laura: No, because that sort of incites the bullies. He talked to his friends about the First Amendment and free speech and that they didn’t have to, but there’s a lot of peer pressure at that age and so when everyone else is doing something you don’t want to be the minority. Except if you’re my son. But it’s still hard.
M: Does this feel like a catalyst for you in any way, or for Will, going forward?
Laura: You know, you sit here and you can say you’re an ally, but how many of us really make that big an impact? How many of us can say, ‘I made a difference?’ Will has made a difference… We’re going to San Francisco at the end of April. The National Center for Lesbian Rights is presenting him with an award, the Fierce Ally Award. Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, is presenting it to him. And so, he died in ‘98, so my entire adult life, our whole relationship, has been overshadowed by this. Judy Shepard has been such an inspiration to me. But, of course, Will isn’t really focused on the award. He heard we were going to San Francisco and was like, ‘Do we get to ride the cable cars?!
Jay: Will had what he wanted to say and Will got his bully pulpit and was able to get his message out. I’m more of a, ‘Well, it’s Friday night, I’d like to sit back, watch some TV and drink a beer,’ and she’s like ‘Let’s go to a protest rally!’ She and Will are both activists. And while I’m very strong in my beliefs…
Laura [in background]: You drive us there!
Jay: Yeah, I drive them there… I kept reminding people that…we’re just tourists in the land of intolerance. There are people who live this every day of their lives and there is no respite for them, there is no turning the phone off and making it all go away.
After speaking with Laura and Jay for a while, they handed the phone over to Will. For some reason, he was fairly reticent. Perhaps my questions were dull; or perhaps he was tired, as it was starting to get late and he was getting over a cold; or perhaps he was just bored with the topic after listening to his parents go on and on about it for so long. I asked him if he knew that he was lucky to have such great parents, and he assured me that he did know. “I like them,” he said, adding coyly, “and only to a certain degree am I just saying that because they’re in the room.” We briefly discussed his love for reading—particularly alternate histories, science fiction and anything non-fiction—and theater. He says that people are still treating him differently at school, but that they are not as blatant about it now as they were at first, and he sounds as if he knows quite well that the problem is theirs, not his. He is just focused on getting people to see that racism, sexism, and homophobia “are all related, and they are all pieces of one person being treated differently because they are different. One group of people is different so they’re treated differently, and it’s not good.” His message is simple: “People are people.”
As to the future, he says he wants to encourage people to talk, “in any way possible,” but that he isn’t making any plans: “The future just happens,” he says, curtly reminding me of what I suppose I should know. And since we spoke, the future has continued happening for him in a big way. This month, Will is helping launch a new project called GetEQUAL to organize regular folks all across the country to demand full equal rights for LGBTQ folks. The entire family recently spent time hanging out and collaborating with one of the group’s founders, and all are very supportive and excited to help GetEQUAL get off the ground. And, of course, there is the trip to San Francisco to look forward to in April.
One can hear Jay whispering now: “Thou art still mortal. Thou art still mortal…”
Another version of the story about the Roman conquerors suggests that rather than whispering “Thou art still mortal,” the phrase repeated instead was “All fame is fleeting.” While this sentiment seems like another potentially effective way to combat hubris, were Jay to whisper this to Will, it might seem slightly disingenuous. Will, the mortal, has a lot more conquering to do, and not just of the fifth grade. We’ll likely be hearing about it.
To find out more about Will’s new project check out GetEqual.Org
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