STONEWALL -- Funny thing about this club -- the students are the teachers.
It didn't start out that way. It began modestly three years ago, a gay-straight alliance set up to support students who felt like outsiders because of their sexuality.
They now call it FREE, Friends Recognizing Everyone Equally, and it numbers about 20 Stonewall Collegiate Institute students.
It's more than a club. It's been selected by school board officials to do diversity training for all staff in the Interlake School Division, guidance counsellor Tara Didychuk says.
It all began after the students met with the school board and senior administrators to talk about Bill 18, the Selinger government's recently passed anti-bullying bill that requires schools receiving public funding to accommodate students who wish to set up a gay-straight alliance or similar club.
"We also talked to them about our group, FREE, and how it's really good to have one so people feel accepted and have a place to go," 17-year-old Charlie Carrier says. "A lot of the schools have set one up, but they don't have a lot of people that are a part of them and they're not sure how to keep them going."
So the division recruited them to be gay-straight alliance ambassadors and teach teachers about what to do to make groups such as FREE work in their own schools.
The first session was held in Teulon, the day before the start of the school year. Three of the students met with high school and elementary school teachers.
'It's life-changing to hear these kids speak. They're well-spoken, wonderful kids who speak from the heart. People cry when they hear these kids talk'
"It was an amazing experience," Ericka Erickson, 16, says. "It was so much fun. A lot of them were really receptive and wanted to hear what we had to say."
Erickson says remarks such as a student saying, "That's so gay" causes damage. "A lot of teachers don't understand that hurts people," she says.
Karina Meady, 17, says the students in FREE want teachers to set more of an example to students.
"When a teacher tells a student to stop saying that, they're more likely to listen than it coming from a peer," Meady says. "I think teachers are really important in educating and helping to stop all the homophobic sayings."
Lisa Webster, the student services administrator for the division, said the kids' participation is critical to the division's mandate of inclusivity.
"It's life-changing to hear these kids speak," Webster says. "They're well-spoken, wonderful kids who speak from the heart. People cry when they hear these kids talk, because they've been there and done that. They've had awful experiences and have turned it into something positive."
Erickson adds there's a practical need for the training.
"It's so teachers understand that there are students in their school that are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer)," she says. "You're not going to find a school where there isn't one person who needs that help. We want to get them to recognize that they have these kids in the schools and these need your help."
The FREE students were in Warren Friday doing the training.
Didychuk says the goal is for the students to provide this training in each of the division's 21 schools.
"It's a big step for a rural division," she says. "There's a lot less controversy than I thought there was going to be, which is actually really refreshing."
Erickson says that just reflects reality.
"It kind of shows you that people are finally beginning to understand this. It's part of life. You're not going to go through life not seeing any LGBTQ or ignoring them."
To back that up, the students point to the Sept. 19 front page of the Winnipeg Free Press that showed two men kissing under the headline Does This Offend You?
For these students, the answer is "no."
"There is always people in love," Carrier says. "It doesn't make any difference what gender they are. Epressing it publicly -- I mean, as long as you're not being disgusting about it -- shouldn't make any difference to anyone, but yet it still does."
FREE started three years ago as a group where students could feel safe whether they were LGBTQ or not, especially in a smaller community such as Stonewall. The club name was suggested by one of the students' moms.
"Originally, we were calling ourselves a gay-straight alliance, but we wanted to change the name to include everyone, because it's not just gay and straight people," Carrier says. "There are different gender identities. There are various things that you can be, and there are some people who just don't want to label themselves. They just want to fit in."
The group also organizes activities for the Day of Pink, the International Day against Bullying, Discrimination, Homophobia and Transphobia, in schools and communities. It was held last April 10. Activities included a bake sale, decorating classroom doors in pink, and teachers and themselves dressing in pink. They also sold T-shirts.
The group has also hosted Jeremy Dias on two occasions. After coming out in high school in Ontario, Dias faced discrimination by students and school officials.
At 17, he launched a legal case against his school and school board, and at age 21 won Canada's second-largest human rights settlement. He used the money to found Jer's Vision: Canada's Youth Diversity Initiative, the international Day of Pink and the Jeremy Dias Scholarship.
The FREE students say for the most part, their parents support their involvement in their movement.
"They're really cool about it," Jordyn MacDonald, 17, says.
Their long-term goal is getting a gender-neutral washroom approved for the collegiate.
"For some people, which washroom you go to could cause a lot of anxiety," Carrier says.
"For us be able to pave the way would be really useful for people in the future."
Does it surprise you rural schools are leading the way on gay-straight alliances in the province? Join the conversation in the comments below.