When Madison Winjum helped start a club aimed at diversity and inclusiveness at her southern Minnesota high school, she didn't expect it to be controversial.
Thousands of public high schools have similar organizations.
"We kind of just want to hear people's experiences without judgment, try to understand them, and spread awareness and more acceptance,” said the Caledonia Area High School senior.
But in late January, the Caledonia Argus newspaper published a letter to the editor written by the school's football coach, Carl Fruechte.
In it, Fruechte wrote, “If the year 2020 has taught us anything, It is that free thinking isn’t allowed when it comes to diverse issues. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and not acceptable speech?” And he asked whether people who think homosexuality is wrong would be welcome to join the club.
"Will Christian students be allowed in the group to agree to disagree with your opinion?" he wrote.
The letter has kicked off a very public discussion on social media and in the pages of the paper about Caledonia’s identity.
Some have defended Fruechte's point of view, while others say it's emblematic of the community's deeper struggle to accept its LGBTQ members — one hovering just below the surface of the kindness, neighborliness and close community ties that define so many small towns.
Fruechte declined an interview for this story, as did the school's athletic director. The district's superintendent declined to comment specifically on Fruechte's letter.
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
Winjum said she didn't expect everyone in her largely white, rural community of 2,700 would be on board with a diversity club. But the letter caught her off guard.
“I guess I also wasn't expecting such a direct response, especially from someone so influential in our community. And not just our community, but from all over Minnesota,” she said. “That took me by surprise."
Fruechte's words and views carry weight, because he's no ordinary coach.
He leads the Caledonia Warriors, a team that has one of the longest high school winning streaks in the nation and is consistently among the best prep football programs in Minnesota. His players often land on top college teams and a few have played in the NFL.
And Fruechte has a reputation for helping Caledonia students in other ways, supporting them as they've battled addiction or navigated difficult family situations. He is often described as someone who goes out of his way to make kids feel welcome, athletes and non-athletes alike.
And that's one reason why the letter has generated such strong reactions in Caledonia: For weeks, people here have been wrestling with how a person who is known for supporting students can at the same time express views that may be hurtful to some of those very same kids.
Rachel Storlie is among those dismayed by Fruechte's letter — and she was also among those who wrote a response in the Argus.
Storlie graduated from Caledonia High School in 1996, and now lives a few miles away in Spring Grove. She describes her childhood as idyllic: running free, hanging out at the pool, riding bikes until the sun went down in the summer.
"It's kind of like the Norman Rockwell dream for parents, where you don't have to worry about where your kids are any time of the day or night, and the neighbors who will always call if they see something weird happening,” she said.
Christian faith traditions run deep here, too, she said. Many people in the community are members of one of four local churches — two Lutheran, one Catholic and another Methodist — and in ninth grade, students from the town’s two parochial elementary schools merge into the public school system.
People are kind here, she said. They look out for each other.
But frank conversations around sexuality, she said, have been elusive.
"I think we live in a very 'don't ask, don't tell' culture in Caledonia,” she said. “I think if people do have an issue with something, they're more likely to just hold their tongue and be Minnesota Nice about it."
In 2003, Angeline Palen wanted to have that conversation. She and her friends tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school.
"There was a need there for more conversation around different identities, and different people,” she said. “There wasn't the level of tolerance for difference than you would hope for."
Palen, who came out as bisexual after graduating, said Caledonia is small and homogenous, so the club was meant to support people who didn't feel as though they fit the town's dominant culture — meaning, Palen said, white, straight and athletic.
But the school's administration at the time pushed back.
"The administration didn't want us to have a club organization that included the word 'gay' in it,” she said.
Ultimately, the group decided to form a club that focused more broadly on diversity of cultures, hosting annual cultural days and other events. When Palen graduated a few years later, the club fizzled.
Nick McGraw, who was a student at Caledonia’s high school about a decade later, said he would have benefited from a club like that.
He didn't come out as gay until a few weeks before he left for college — partly because of the bullying he endured in school, some of the worst of it coming from the football team, he said.
"I played soccer, not football, so that was gay. I lived in town and not the country, and it’s a very strong rural town and people made the assumption that it's 'gay' to live in town,” he said.
McGraw says the more he heard this, the harder it was to be honest with himself about his own sexuality.
"In order to succeed or fit into that town, you had to align with the ideas that people had in mind to what a 'normal' person was,” he said.
McGraw, who now lives in Minneapolis, but whose parents lived in Caledonia until recently, says Fruechte's letter is hurtful, but also confounding, because the coach is widely regarded as a kind person, deeply invested in the success of students.
Alyvia Ness was one of those students.
In high school, she played basketball, which Fruechte coached in the football off-season. But Ness was struggling with her school work and an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
"He was always lending a hand to help me, whether it was homework or other life circumstances,” she said. “He knew I was using at the time and would always offer his support, ask me how I'm doing, and try to motivate me to just overall quit."
That's despite the fact that Ness, who is now in recovery, was open about being a lesbian.
Coming out in Caledonia
It's this seeming contradiction that Zeke Ott continues to struggle with.
He's 22 now, a student at the University of North Dakota, where he earned a full ride to play on its Division 1 football team. An injury ended his career, but he's now wrapping up his nursing degree.
Ott said he spent hundreds of hours with his team and with Fruechte, working out before the sun rose, practicing after school.
"He was so important to me because I spent all of my time with Carl,” Ott said. “We were very close and he trained me one-on-one to mold me into being a successful athlete."
At the time, Ott was quietly examining his own sexuality. In college he came out as pansexual, meaning he is attracted to people regardless of their gender identities.
But in high school, he worried that his coach — who would bring a Bible to practice, who invited the players to pray with him before games and who had openly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage to Ott — would reject him. And he worried his teammates would follow.
For a time, Ott said, the environment on the team and in Caledonia made him hate himself.
“I've always known that I was attracted to both men and women, and I tried for a really long time to just not address half of that. And I really thought I could. But coming out in Caledonia because of Carl was impossible,” Ott said.
That's in sharp contrast to what Ott experienced in college. When he came out to his football teammates, they supported and welcomed him.
Ott’s mother, Carrie Travis, worked in the Caledonia school system for years as a nurse. She watched her children flourish in the schools, and she loved the kindness and neighborliness she experienced there.
“If you get cancer, you won’t be able to open your refrigerator because there will be so many people there with casseroles,” she said. “If you drive your car in a ditch, there will be people immediately stopping to get you.”
But she said the coach’s letter — and the conversation it has sparked — are a reminder that Caledonia still struggles, on a deeper level, to accept people for who they are.
“It’s a good town with good people. That’s what makes it so hard,” she said. But: “If you’re a kind, decent, Christian person, and you single out one group, that’s hard. And it’s damaging.”
‘A space for all people to feel welcome’
And while the conversation continues — a fresh batch of letters to the editor was published this week in the Argus — the high school Diversity Club is moving forward.
Members are working on its mission statement. Madison Winjum said she wants it to be a place where all perspectives are valid and worthy of consideration.
And unlike in 2003, the club has widespread support. The school board unanimously approved the club’s formation, and Superintendent Craig Ihrke said the club is a welcome addition to the school community.
“We want to be sure we have a space for all people to feel welcome,” Ihrke wrote in an email. “The addition of the Diversity Club is a small step in an ongoing process to continually improve relations with and among others.”
For his part, Ott said he applauds the students who founded the Diversity Club. He’s grateful — and surprised — by the number of people who have rejected the coach's comments in the paper.
He said the conversation Caledonia is having right now would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago when he was in high school — and he hopes it helps students there just beginning to understand their sexuality to embrace who they are, without fear.
“You can be flamboyant. You can be straight. You can be gender fluid,” Ott said. “You can be in the middle, and you can still be an athlete."
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