Making a Difference

The Diversity Advisory Council at the University of Montana recently presented twenty-three students with this year’s DAC Student Achievement Awards, which honor student leadership in promoting campus diversity.

From managing UM’s International House to raising awareness and funds for children’s health and well-being around the world to working with deaf people, this year’s awardees were honored for a range of diversity activities.

The winners of the awards were Turki Ismail, Shane Bartschi, Umut Arslan, Mastewal Seyeneh, Toan Phung, Saeed Alsaiari, Chelsea Newberry, Dakota Whisler, Erika Baldry, Chantanelle “Chani” Marie Nava, Francisco MacFarland, Zebah Burdeau, Priscilla Lekalkuli, Neil Bennett, Lacey Kvam, Yibo Fan, Sachi Mahendri, Lauri L. Lindquist, Jessi Cahoon, Mohammed Khamis Abdullah, Farzona Shukurova, Kamalashri Easwara Murthi, and Hanan Omar.

The awards ceremony was held in the University Center Ballroom on March 18. More than 150 people attended, including UM President Royce Engstrom, who provided opening remarks stressing the importance of diversity to UM’s educational environment.

The keynote speaker was UM music Professor Steven Hesla, the recipient of UM’s 2013 Nancy Borgmann Diversity Award.

In his address, Hesla shared his story of growing up as a gay person and how his gift for music became a refuge and safe zone for his sexuality. He spoke about being raised in rural South Dakota in a religious family, his college experience, the trials he faced as he entered into the profession of teaching, and his passion for gay rights and legal protections for the LGBTIQ community.

“Presenting the keynote address at the celebration provided the opportunity to speak from my heart in hopes that my life experiences might further encourage the advancement of gay civil rights, along with rights for all who are marginalized for their differences,” Hesla says.

Twenty-three students received awards at the ceremony.

“It was more cathartic than I might have imagined,” he says.
“Gathering the experiences of more than sixty years of life into a fifteen-minute speech gave pause for much thought with regard to my own evolution as a gay person. While I have worked hard to overcome what is sometimes called internalized oppression, I find myself on something of a mission to advocate for equality for this long-oppressed minority: the LGBTIQ population.

“While I was writing the speech, it became apparent how beneficial this path toward healing is for everyone—not just for those who have been oppressed but also for their oppressors. With this in mind, it seems more important than ever for these transformations to proceed expeditiously.”

Hesla shared his speech with the Montanan, and it can be read in its entirety here:

“Just a few weeks ago my life partner of twenty-seven years, Gary Clark, and I both choked with emotion as we witnessed Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform their rap single, Same Love, at the 2014 Grammy Awards, followed by the historic, live-televised ceremony of marriage for thirty-three same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as officiated by Queen Latifah. We could scarcely believe how far America had come since the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where, for the first time in recorded history, the gay community refused to be arrested and hauled away in paddy wagons. Forty-five years separate these two historic events, with the Stonewall incident sparking the gay civil rights movement, and the Grammy incident demonstrating that it is absolutely normal to be gay—if that happens to be one’s authentic self. Stonewall did for gay civil rights what Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus did for the African-American civil rights movement—it was the defining, watershed moment. Congratulations, rioters!

“As a gay man who was born twenty-two years before Stonewall, I have lived through many of society’s gay rights transitions in deeply personal ways, so perhaps it would be useful to share some of my experiences and transformations.

“As a little boy in a religious and loving family, it wasn’t long before I learned that my status as the middle of five children was relatively unique. Like all my siblings, I was pretty smart and quick to help, but I could also sing all kinds of melodies and songs by the time I was two. I listened constantly to music on our old 78 RPM record player, and soon, I was playing the piano by ear. I loved music! As soon as my dad purchased our old-beater farm piano for seventy-five dollars, I spent hours figuring out the melodies I already knew, and also figured out left-hand accompaniments that provided the harmonies I had been hearing.

“In church, I learned of God’s great love for the human beings he had created, and I felt totally loved by parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church in rural South Dakota seemed the happiest place on earth, and life was good!

“On the farm, there were kittens and lambs, piglets and baby chickens, cows and calves, gardens and orchards. Even the dandelions in the fresh country air seemed beautiful, and we kids would pick bouquets of the famous lawn-flower to bring gifts of love to our mother or grandmothers.

“At family gatherings, friends and relatives wanted to hear “Little Stevie” play the piano, and my mom told me, years later, how nonplussed she was when I played all the Christmas carols I knew for a family gathering—I was only three years old—and everyone applauded, so I applauded too, with a huge, happy grin. Mom, a very humble woman, worried that I was applauding for arrogant reasons, but I’m sure it was only because I loved the music as much as the relatives did; I probably didn’t even realize the applause was for me.

“Piano lessons began at age five with a fine teacher, and I loved every minute of learning how to read and play music from books. Soon, I could hear the music just by looking at the page, and before long, the kids from our family and all three of my Hesla cousins were taking piano lessons together on Saturday mornings. While we all learned our pieces for the annual recital, my pieces were almost always reserved for last. I poured my heart into each piece, and of course, it became fun to receive accolades, once I learned the purpose of applause.

“During these years, I was realizing that I was significantly different from my siblings and cousins, that I was somehow gifted in certain ways. It seemed a good thing, and it portended that I would do something special with music and, likely, with my life.

“Very subtly and gradually, however, I also came to sense that my difference would include same-sex attraction. With that realization, I began to experience a social-psychological condition called cognitive dissonance, even though I wouldn’t learn about the theories and research of social psychologist Leon Festinger until many years later.

“I was learning there were underlying differences in certain people, and these differences were not particularly desirable, or so I heard. If you were one of these people who seemed a bit ‘queer,’ as I once heard some people in our community referring to an unmarried man who lived not too far from our farm, you would wish you had not been cursed with such an affliction. I learned that these people would be shunned, ostracized, derided, and that parents might be careful to keep their children away from such people, perhaps, as a precaution. These people just didn’t fit in, somehow. I also learned that the Bible seemed to condemn these people, and there seemed no way out of this condemnation, except perhaps to attempt a more ‘normal’ lifestyle, if at all possible.

“I also learned that life, in spite of being really good in so many ways, seemed potentially fraught with peril and doom, so I determined it best to conceal any thoughts in the direction of same-sex attraction. Maybe it was just a phase, I told myself. The benefit of all this sublimation was that I had plenty of time to excel in academics and musical development. Music became my refuge, my safe zone.

“At times, I agonized over this condition, which showed no signs of abating. I couldn’t think of another boy in our entire rural community who seemed to carry any of these same secrets. And I know now that not a soul in my immediate or extended family suspected that I was anything but ‘normal’ in every way during my growing up years. My orientation was assumed to be heterosexual.

“When I entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, I began a journey that eventually led to a college piano teaching position, first at Western Michigan University, and then at the University of Montana, where I am now in my thirty-sixth year! Also, by the end of my freshman year at Oberlin, I had fallen head over heels in love with another guy. Finally, there could be no doubt of my sexual orientation. Truth has resonance, and it was such an enormous relief to discover true love for the first time that I rejoiced in experiencing my authentic self. I could not imagine life in any other way. In life, I have learned, authenticity is essential.

“To fast-forward, it took thirteen more years before I mustered the courage to tell my parents, and then gradually each of my siblings, that I was gay. Having that conversation was delayed by living with a very real fear of familial rejection, of being disowned, disinherited, or resented by the very people I loved the most. It seemed too much to bear. I feared I could only bring shame to my family. This is how deeply my formative patterns were entrenched. Self-loathing is often integral to growing up in a society which condemns one’s very core.

“While I knew that I could be despised and disparaged, I further came to know that I belonged to a minority thought collectively and nearly universally to be despicable. Can you imagine? People can be despised without being thought of as being despicable, but gay people, it seemed to me, were thought to be the scourge of humanity. It didn’t matter what ethnicity, color of skin, race, creed, religion, or sex one was; gay people seemed uniformly discriminated against by nearly everyone. We were the universal whipping-children. Everyone got to despise and fear us!

“Lest you think I am overly sensitive, I will tell you the how my first college teaching interview ended in 1972. The gentleman from a bible college in Kansas said he had one more item he wished to bring up before we concluded our interview. His concluding comment, forever seared into my soul, was, ‘You appear to be normal, but if you are gay or the least bit faggy, we can’t possibly hire you at a small bible college like ours. You can’t imagine the scandal we would have at our school if it got out that we had a gay person on our faculty.’

“In the late 1990s I wrote to one of my former UM piano students, who had become the Speaker of the House in Helena, about the Montana Legislature’s collective and continuing refusal to discuss gay rights or legal protections for the LGBTIQ community. This refusal, I proffered, was a de facto act of discrimination, thereby proving emphatically and unequivocally the need for gay people to have protections under the law. In fact, we needed protection from our own legislature! How ironic was that? It was not only politically correct to disregard the gay population, it was the honorable thing to do, the right thing to do. Propagating discrimination against the LGBTIQ populace seemed the intransigent stance for myriad legislative sessions.

“In 2002, when I asked former UM President Dennison why sexual orientation was the only minority left off the Montana University System’s non-discrimination policy statement, he told me this was a decision solely in the hands of the Board of Regents. By now my erstwhile piano student was serving on the Montana University System’s Board of Regents, so I wrote him yet again, stating that the Montana University System’s blatant disregard for gay people was egregious, and asked for the thoughtful correction of this important oversight. Even the Board of Regents was promulgating the very discrimination from which gay people sought protection, I explained.

“While the University of Montana’s non-discrimination policy statement has included sexual-orientation since 1994, it took until July 2013 for the Board of Regents to finally include sexual orientation in the Montana University System’s non-discrimination policy statement. Well, better late than never.

“This brings everything to the most important part. Today we are celebrating the achievements of students in promoting and honoring diversity in all its variant forms on our campus and beyond. While there is much yet to be accomplished in all areas where discrimination continues, we congratulate and thank you students for the important work you and many others are doing. By celebrating and embracing diversity, we send great and positive messages to those whose differences enrich our collective lives with colorful, vibrant, and meaningful contributions. We are simultaneously sending great and positive messages to those who might otherwise feel dismissive of, or threatened by, people of difference.

“Gradually, we learn that it is our differences that make us, as a people, richer and deeper. If differences sometimes activate discomfort, or social dissonance, it is these same differences which ultimately propel us toward a new and deeper consonance, and a richer co-existence.

“In music, it is dissonance, or the so-called ‘wrong notes,’ that often express the deepest meaning. We who love, study, and perform music of great meaning lean on these clashing and probing notes, which tug at our heart strings and make us weep with the beauty and depth of emotion that is being expressed. As these savored and deeply expressed dissonant notes propel the music inexorably toward the consonant notes of resolution, music somehow imitates, even summarizes, life.

“Similarly, I believe the discomfort that has driven homophobia has had a deeper purpose. Like a festering sliver in the body, this discomfort has been proceeding inexorably toward healing. There is no other possibility. The body identifies a sliver as a foreign object, and it can only be rejected, or it will cause enough pain until the sliver is removed.

“Homophobia is a fear of something that should never have been feared—sexual diversity is normal, and it can and must be embraced. Gay people, and all the variant sexual identities present in human beings, are merely fellow participants in the larger spectrum. We’re all somewhere on the spectrum! This is coming to be understood. The cognitive dissonance inflicted upon gay people by a fearful heterosexual majority has turned out to be as disquieting to the straight community as it has been to the gay community. Something deep within the heterosexual majority has been festering, knowing that their denial of gay rights was based on an untenable assumption that everyone can be the same if we all just try hard enough. Perhaps most telling was the heterosexual majority’s realization that they have been rejecting and vilifying their own children!

“Civilization is advancing. One of the last whipping-children of discrimination is coming into resonance, into consonance. Inclusion is not only the desired result; it is, in fact, the only possible result. The unsustainable and mean-spirited laws are crumbling, one after the other. And the best news is that everyone gets to celebrate these transformations. Society becomes richer and life becomes deeper when the consonance that was meant to be is finally achieved.

“The homophobia that drove the Montana Legislature and Board of Regents to disregard its gay population for more than a century is proving to be only a phase, a long one for sure, but a phase, nevertheless. It could not endure. And, good news, everyone will benefit from this transformation. Family structure will benefit from inclusion—it will not disintegrate; it will embrace all its children, all its loved ones. Fears will transform into loving acceptance and the affirmation of all citizens. It’s a win-win progression.

“In music, the dissonant notes or harmonies are rarely more than a half-step or a whole-step away from the notes of resolution or consonance. Similarly in life, human conflicts are generally closer to resolution than we sometimes think. The answers may be only a half-step away! Humankind always has more in common than in conflict.

“Finally, universities are, by definition, places where the entire universe is up for consideration, where universal concerns are addressed, and where young adults become informed and considerate citizens, capable of advancing the greater good in society, cultures, and civilization. Today we celebrate the differences you students are making. You are the upcoming generation of informed and considerate citizens. Thank you for what you are already achieving, and please, carry on!”