Editor's note: This story was updated on June 25, 2010.
When the Fayetteville, Ark., Gay Pride Parade steps off on East Street Saturday on its way to the Walton Art Center parking lot, it will be led by a young man who has made a career out of fighting for gay rights.
Make that a young boy. Will Phillips, the grand marshal, is 10 years old, and his presence has thrust Fayetteville's Gay Pride Parade into the national spotlight.
Ordinarily, the annual parade is pretty low-key, residents say. The mayor issues a proclamation, the police close a few streets and a few hundred people show up, something that Skip Descant, who covers the city for the Northwest Arkansas Times, says is a lot for a Saturday morning in the summer.
Booths are set up in the Wal-Mart parking lot; people linger to hear a few speeches in the hot sun; sometimes there are a few jeers; and then everyone goes home early. It is a pretty low-key affair.
But the selection of young Will, who last November refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school to show his support for gay rights, has changed all that. This year the parade has drawn national attention, and it's promising to tread the line between farce and confrontation.
The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., has called Will's selection to be grand marshal “a form of child abuse,” and it has called on the city’s mayor to “cancel his plans to issue a proclamation celebrating homosexual behavior and gay pride.”
“We believe that it goes beyond the pale for adults to exploit a 10-year-old child for dark political purposes,” said Bryan Fischer, the director of issue analysis at AFA. “He is too young to understand. There is nothing about homosexual conduct to be proud of and much to be ashamed of.”
The AFA, according to Fischer, has sent an “action alert” to its members in Arkansas, and he says they have deluged the mayor’s and city council’s office with e-mails “asking him to stop this charade.” Though there are no plans to actively protest at the parade, Fischer said, “as of noon Thursday our records show that the mayor and city council had received 12,300 e-mails asking them to stop the parade.”
It is an argument that young Will Phillips doesn’t accept. The boy has begun a media blitz of local and national television stations, explaining that he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it says “all men are created equal,” but gays don’t have the same rights as everyone else. That, the boy says, is why he has become an ambassador of gay rights.
Efforts to reach Will and his father were unsuccessful.
Will, who in March received the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award for his stand, has complained that his support of gay rights has caused him trouble at school and that he has been called a “gay wad” by other students. That prompted comedian newscaster Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, to hire professional wrestler Mick Foley to protect Phillips this weekend.
“If I find out that anybody has hassled this young man or teased him or called him a wad of any sort, I and perhaps a few of my friends will come to his school and bring a world of pain,’ Foley warned.
Even within the gay alliance in Arkansas, Will's role has sparked tension. In reaction to the AFA’s charges that children who attend the parade would be in danger, organizer Joney Harper said: “We are not San Francisco ... New York ... we’re pretty much a family affair, so it is pretty safe to be there.”
That remark prompted other gay groups to attack him for implying that children might not be safe at Pride gatherings in San Francisco or New York.
As one city hall worker remarked in taking a message for the mayor, “This year’s parade is going to be different.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the location where the parade was scheduled to end.