An OSQA Oral History: John Helding

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To celebrate Pride Week 2016, OSQA hosted an event to share information on conducting oral history interviews. The event included an in-person interview with John Helding, an OSU alum who participated in a 1981 ASOSU vote to fund the Gay People’s Alliance. Helding shared his personal story, his experiences at OSU, and how 1981 ASOSU vote impacted and shaped this future, both personally and professionally.

Date: May 3, 2016
Location: Native American Longhouse, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
Length: 01:48:45
Interviewee: John Helding
Interviewer: Natalia Fernández

John Helding

John Helding

Interview Video and Transcript (forthcoming)

Bio: John Helding was born February 11, 1958 in Portland, OR, and his family moved to Spokane, WA soon after and lived there for about eight years. Helding grew up in Gresham, OR on the east side of Portland with his family, including his parents and two older sisters. Both of his parents were born and raised in Montana. His father worked in the timber industry; his mother was a stay at home mom during Helding’s early years but then received her elementary teaching degree and taught elementary school in the Gresham school district for 15 years. Helding lived in Gresham until he graduated from high school in 1976. He attended Oregon State University from 1976-1981 and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. During his time at OSU he sang with the OSU choir all five years, was a resident assistant his junior year, and was an ASOSU senator during his fifth year. After graduating, he moved to Beaverton, OR to work for the company Tektronix for three years as an industrial engineer (1981-1984) – during this time he decided he no longer wished to be an engineer. He then attended Stanford Business School from 1984-1986. After graduating from Stanford, Helding began working for the firm Booz Allen Hamilton and worked for them until the year 2000. He worked as an Associate/Sr. Associate (1986-1990); Western Region Administrative Director (1990-1993); Group Director of Operations, Marketing Intensive Practice (1994-1996); and Senior Director of Global Recruitment (1997-2000). Helding’s other positions have included Chair/Member, Client Security Fund Commission, State Bar of California (1998-2002); Member, Founding Board, San Francisco Friends School (2001-2005); Senior Advisor, Great Place to Work Institute (2003-2006); Member, Board, American Friends Service Committee (2005-2012); Chairperson/Clerk, Board Audit Committee, American Friends Service Committee (2005-2012). As of 2016, Helding’s positions include Chairperson/Clerk, Board, Quaker Voluntary Service (since November 2011); Chairperson, Lopez Island School Board, Lopez Island School District (since 2009); Facilitator, Interpersonal Dynamics Program, Stanford Graduate School of Business (since January 2001); Member, Board of Directors, Marts & Lundy, Inc. (since 2013); Advisor, Helding and Associates (since 2008). After living in San Fransisco for a time, in 2005 he reconnected with an OSU choir alum, a widow with two teenagers, and he moved to live with his new family on Lopez Island, WA; they have been living there since 2006.

Summary: Helding begins the interview by sharing information about his family history and early childhood in Spokane, WA and later Gresham, OR – Helding describes Gresham at the time as a small middle class community. In high school Helding’s activities included participating on the debate team, singing in the choir, playing sports, acting in plays and musicals, and being co-editor of the student newspaper his senior year. He shares some of his memories regarding the lack of open discussion about LGBTQ+ issues and lack of support for LGBTQ+ peoples within the community; a community Helding describes as a complex mix of progressive and conservative attitudes. He notes that at the time, the only instances of discussion of LGBTQ+ peoples was when he and classmates made fun of the community – he describes the ways in which this occurred and his perspectives on why they did this and how it impacted the students who at the time were not openly LGBTQ. Helding recalls the memory of a classmate who committed suicide; he shares that in hindsight, he and other classmates have wondered if their classmate may have been gay and unsupported in that environment. He reflects that although his family was relatively progressive on civil rights and union rights, he notes the lack of discussion regarding LGBTQ+ issues, peoples, and rights. Helding was politically active and focused on issues such as Vietnam and political integrity, but not gay rights – he recalls the lack of language and even being unaware of the concept within his community, let alone being able to discuss it.

Helding then shares his recollections of his time at OSU; he lived in Poling Hall, was an RA in Cauthorn Hall his junior year, and sang with the OSU choir for five years. Helding describes the campus climate in terms of LGBTQ+ issues – he notes that although the issues were not discussed in classes or among his peers, the same jokes and crude attitudes from high school were not expressed. He recalls that instead, there were student activists on campus, including the Gay People’s Alliance, who were leading the conversations for visibility, recognition, and funding within a predominately white and conservative campus and town; one of the key OSU LGBTQ+ activists was Eddie Hickey. Helding also refers to articles and letters to the editor in the OSU student newspaper, The Barometer, about LGBTQ+ issues. And, he remembers being influenced by a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly which covered LGBTQ+ issues on the national level. During his time on campus, he recalls the “morale majority” movement and Evangelical Christian organizations that promoted anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and practice emerging at OSU. Helding then begins the story of the 1981 ASOSU vote to fund the Gay People’s Alliance. He explains that he was always very politically active during his high school years and that he was interested in representing independent students, especially the engineering program, rather than the students most represented by ASOSU, the Greek life affiliated students. Helding recalls that one of the main issues for the senate that year was whether or not student organizations could charge for attendance to film screenings as a way to fund-raise (the local private movie theaters were lobbying against the competition); Helding and other senators drafted a policy to address the issue. He notes that funding was largely the most common issue addressed via ASOSU. He explains that many student groups requested resources but that in his opinion, some received more than their fair share of funding. Helding recalls that he wanted to examine the inequity involved in funding legacy organizations rather than new groups – and he wanted to change that.

The next portion of the interview focuses on the April 28, 1981 meeting in which the ASOSU vote to fund the Gay People’s Alliance was discussed. Helding notes that he recently began to think about the issue due to the university’s diversity initiatives in these past few years – he began to think back on his time at OSU and began researching OSU’s LGBTQ+ history. He found Thomas Kraemer’s Corvallis, Oregon State University gay activism 1969-2004 online, however, it did not include the 1981 vote that Helding recalled. In January of 2016 he came to the OSU Special Collections and Archives Researcher Center to look through the ASOSU meeting minutes for 1980-1981 in which he found the documentation he sought. He shows the meeting agenda and minutes with the information about the vote – he especially notes that while the documents are typed, there are some handwritten notes, most likely written by the faculty advisor, specific to the Gay People’s Alliance (GPA) vote. In the section regarding the student fees allocations, the notes say “GPA $150 18-13” and Helding recognized that as the Gay People’s Alliance vote. As this was the second to last meeting of the year, this was the meeting that student groups lobbied for their organizations to be funded. Eddie Hickey represented the Gay People’s Alliance since the student fees committee had denied them funds and they wanted the senate to overturn that ruling. Helding says that he did not know who they were as individuals or as an organization and that the group of individuals were the first openly gay people with whom he interacted. He says that he was interested in the GPA request because it was a new request and thought it should be more seriously considered. He also recalled that his beliefs had evolved over the course of his college experience and that by that time, he saw LGBTQ+ issues as a civil rights issue and that it was the right thing to do to fund the GPA the amount requested. Helding then describes the process of the debate on whether or not to fund the GPA – he goes into great detail explaining the discussion, which lasted over an hour, and the pros and cons to funding the GPA. The case against funding was that the LGBTQ+ community was immoral and that the university should not fund “a belief.” Helding, a seasoned debater, recalls that he was fighting for the concept, the principle of providing funding. He said that as a public, non-religiously affiliated university, the conservative Christian morality argument was not applicable. He also said that at the time there was research that said that 5-10% of the population was gay and that as a community, and especially at a university, students needed to learn about and discuss LGBTQ+ issues. And, one of the closing arguments he used was that the University of Oregon was already funding their GPA, and therefore, OSU needed to as well. At first there was a verbal vote and it appeared to have passed, but a hand vote was requested by the GPA’s opponents; the final vote was 18-13 in favor. He then reflects on the experience and says that he had no idea that such a debate would ensue and that the GPA request was unexpectedly approved. From his perspective it was a very civil and rational debate as by that time of the year, the group of senators were able to work well together. He also recognized that it was not a monetary issue, it was a symbolic one. Notably, Helding takes time to reflect on his interactions with the GPA members immediately following the meeting. The GPA came to him to thank him for his support, but he did not want to be associated with them as to potentially be thought of as gay himself. He recalls although he was more than willing to support the GPA, he remembers not having the courage or maturity to rise above what others may have thought of him. Helding then describes the aftermath of the vote. At that time, when the senate disagreed with the student fees committee, another committee was formed, an arbitration committee composed of the senior executive senators, the student body officers, a member of the administration, and the faculty advisor – and that they had the final say on the budget. The committee then presented the budget to the President, who at that time was President Robert MacVicar. The arbitration committee approved the entire proposed budget except for the funds for the GPA. And, there was just one short sentence in an article in The Barometer that simply stated that the GPA received no funding. At the next ASOSU meeting, and the last one for the academic year, Helding remembers protesting the decision. He notes that he can only imagine that the administration was against the vote. As Helding was graduating in June, he said he felt very defeated with the lack of the democratic process and that there was nothing he could do. He notes that the Queer Resource Center, now the Pride Center, was not funded until 20 years later, in the 2000-2001 academic year. Helding concludes this portion of the interview by reflecting upon lessons learned at OSU and how he evolved as a human being through his college experiences. He recalls the many diverse students and professors he met, classes he took, and his time on the ASOSU senate – and how his experiences and people he met all helped open and broaden his perspectives. He concludes by expressing that he wishes he had been less fearful to being associated with the GPA. He also surmises that if perhaps he had joined the senate sooner, he may have been in a more powerful position to take part in the arbitration committee and influence the final decision. He further concludes by acknowledging his progress in his personal evolution of knowledge and understanding of human diversity during his time at OSU.

Helding continues the interview with his post-OSU life story. He reflects on the importance of the ASOSU GPA vote and its impact on his career. He recalls that during his time working for the company Tektronix in Beaverton, OR, one of his co-workers was a transvestite – he notes his continued evolution in understanding and appreciating the diversity in the human experience. He also recalls writing about the ASOSU GPA vote as part of his business school applications; he ultimately chose to attend Stanford University. It was at Stanford that he met an even broader group of people from all over the world. In his second year he was in a class called “Interpersonal Dynamics” to develop communication and trust building skills. In the class, two of his classmates and friends were gay, one of which was Mike Smith, a co-founder of the Names Project which created the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. He expressed that at Stanford he became friends with openly gay classmates and that he was part of a student group that organized a campus wide event to fund AIDS/HIV research – an act at the time that was controversial. The event was called “Standford Cares: A Community Response” and the administration became involved and was supportive. Helding connects his OSU experiences to his Stanford activities and credits his continued personal growth later in life to his undergraduate years.

Helding then shares his professional experiences. He describes his work for the firm Booz Allen Hamilton; a firm he worked for from 1986-2000. He was a consultant and later a manager on a variety of issues, including recruitment. At the time the firm included 15,000 people and had a presence in over 25 countries. To give a specific example of his work as an LGBTQ+ community ally, Helding describes an event at Harvard called “Out of the Closet and Into the Board Room” for gay and lesbian business school students. As the Senior Director of Global Recruitment, Helding took the lead to ensure that the firm was represented at the event, and he personally called the chairman of the firm to attend. He recalls the powerful impact of this act for the firm and for the students. He also shares the story of a group of Booz Allen Hamilton firm employees who created an affinity group called GLOBAL for LGBTQ+ employees. There was a backlash from other employees who expressed their objections, and Helding defended the group and advised the senior management should do the same – the chairman of the firm soon sent a company wide memo in full support of the group. Helding shares a story of the firm being in support of an employee who’s sex change operation caused a client to not wish to be served by them and the firm stood by its employee. 

Helding notes that the oral history interview process has enabled him to reflect upon “touch points in time” throughout his life and how each of his experiences built on each other and helped him be more open and more supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. He then reflects that over the years there has been much change within the OSU community and society as a whole. Helding says that it was the courage of LGBTQ+ individuals “coming out” and activities like The Names Project that helped to humanize the issues so that more and more people could feel a more personal connection to LGBTQ+ issues. He says that the fundamental change he has seen is that the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community are no longer conceptual, they are personal. And, he says that from a business perspective, its smart and good business to hire the best and be diverse in hiring practices. He connects this to present day issues faced by the transgender community.

In the last part of the interview, Helding reflects on his professional life post Booz Allen Hamilton; he shares some of his many positions, mostly independent in the last 15 years. He also talks about his personal life and his involvement in the Quaker faith community which began during his time in San Fransisco in the early 1990s – his group acknowledged gay marriage in 1970. He shares the story of meeting his partner and moving to Lopez Island, WA, to live with her and her two children; they have been living there since 2006. Helding concludes the interview by reflecting upon major moments in his life in the last 40 years, and he especially reflects on his feelings towards OSU and Oregon in general. He says that as a native Oregonian, he has a special connection to the university and the state. He notes how proud he is of OSU for the strides taken to ensure that the campus is inclusive and how it strives toward equity for all. His last thoughts are about his positive experience of sharing his story as an oral history interview and expresses the power of people sharing their stories.

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