A spunky teenager at the centre of a gay rights battle in Manitoba schools no longer has to keep quiet about a support group he set up at Steinbach Regional Secondary School.
The Hanover School Division announced Wednesday that Evan Wiens will be allowed to put up posters to promote meetings of his gay-straight alliance. The decision overturned a school policy that prompted Wiens to engage in civil disobedience — putting up posters, having them removed, then putting them up again.
“I’m just really overwhelmed and really overjoyed that they said yes,” the 17-year-old said after learning of the decision.
“It’s important that they’re not allowing extra advertisement or less advertisement. It’s really important ... that all groups are able to advertise the exact same way.”
Wiens has become a focal point of the debate over Bill 18 — a proposed provincial law that would force schools to accommodate groups that promote diversity, including gay-straight alliances. Some religious leaders have said that would violate the freedom of religious schools to teach according to their faith.
Wiens found himself in a strange middle ground. His public school allowed the alliance to exist, but forbade him from promoting it through posters in hallways, as other groups did.
He gained national attention in recent weeks as his battle grew. During recent television interviews on the streets of the small city southeast of Winnipeg, Wiens was taunted by some of his peers as cameras rolled.
He was granted a brief closed-door meeting Tuesday with school district officials, who issued a ruling Wednesday that said “a gay-straight alliance may advertise events in a manner equivalent to their school’s existing student-initiated groups.”
District superintendent Randy Dueck said the wording was chosen to reflect the different policies schools currently have on how student groups can promote themselves.
“Each school has developed their own advertising policies. What we’re really interested in is that a gay-straight alliance is treated the same as other existing groups in the school,” Dueck said.
Wiens said he hopes that the new policy, along with other provisions in Bill 18, will make gay students feel more safe and accepted.
But there are already questions as to whether the proposed law would do much to crack down on bullies. Bill 18 broadens the definition of bullying to include social media and other forums and would require schools to establish human diversity policies to promote equality. But, like the existing Public Schools Act, principals and other school officials would still have to decide what punishment should be handed out to bullies, if any.
Wiens said as far as he knows, the people who have thrown verbal slurs his way — even those seen on television newscasts — have not been punished.
“I identified them and let my school know who they were, but from what I know, they haven’t been talked to,” he said.
“I’m hoping I can work together with the school to not just promote the (alliance), but also eliminate that type of bullying and comments being made.”