Students in field

Kurt Hilden (’71) Grateful for Liberal Arts Education; LGBTQ Allies at FinnU

September 9, 2019

Kurt Hilden’s (’71) journey through life has been anything but boring.

A native of the Copper Country, Hilden graduated from Lake Linden high school in 1969. Despite moving west, a moment of Hilden’s family history is forever captured at the Houghton County Museum in Lake Linden in the form of a painting of his paternal grandfather’s family by the Finnish artist, Toyra. Hilden described the painting at “primitive” but it is registered with the Smithsonian.

It made sense for Hilden to attend Suomi College in the 70s. He hoped to study religion after being drawn to it by a minister in Mohawk. He majored in Liberal Arts and earned his associates in 1971.

“I chose Suomi because of the respect for education, learning and because of the heritage with my family,” said Hilden.

Hilden loved the small class sizes and even determined the Suomi classes were more rigorous than his Master’s level classes he took later in life. One such example was a botany class taught by Donald Wanhala.

“We went up to the Keweenaw for an exam with our botany book and Wanhala would call out your last name and point to a tree and say, ‘genus and species,’” said Hilden. “You had to start flipping through the guide book and determine what it was. Having that hands on knowledge in the field is so valuable.”

For Hilden, his religion classes in particular helped contemplate life’s biggest questions. One of the biggest questions for Hilden focused on who he was and how he fit into the world.

“In the 70s, sex, as ever, was talked about but rarely looked at academically or in a way that would be helpful to a person seeking identity,” said Hilden, who identifies as omnisexual within the LGBTQ community. “When I was at Carthage College Seminary after Suomi College, I struggled. I wasn’t as mature as I could have been but the system that was operating at the time wasn’t helpful or as engaging as it could have been either.”

After Suomi, Hilden attended the Carthage College Seminary to become ordained. In 1975, he left the Seminary and gave up on his dreams of becoming a minister as a direct result of his sexual identity.

“A part of me felt I had been kicked out,” said Hilden. “The nation and the church was much more constrained then that it is now. At the time, I felt I had too much emotional pressure and strain and I was happy to separate.”

Shortly after, he began working for a hospital in Minneapolis in the records department. He remembers working with an oncologist who noted that a new disease was forming. In five short years, public health officials would identify it as HIV/AIDS.

After a short time at the hospital, Hilden moved to San Francisco, which would ultimately become one of the epicenters for the AIDS crises. Hilden, like many in the LGBTQ community, lost close friends in the epidemic. While there, he volunteered at the Pasadena AIDS center and began taking classes Master’s classes in Theology from Fuller Seminary.

“Fuller Seminary had the first class that actually dealt with homosexuality and pastoral care of the homosexual,” said Hilden.

After he obtained his Master’s, Hilden had to make a decision about the direction of his life.

“I determined the best thing I could do was work in education,” said Hilden. “In California, if you could pass a five hour general knowledge exam, you could teach.”

He passed the exam, which he said was comparable to the GRE, and attended Chapman University for his multiple subject teaching credential.

From there, he worked in K-12 covering any subject needed. His favorite was English and Social studies and he enjoyed teaching at the middle school level but admitted it was a difficult age.

Hilden taught for 17 years until 2007, when he moved from San Francisco to Albuquerque, NM. Fortunately for him, he dodged the real estate housing crises that currently plaques southern California.

“When I moved into my apartment in San Francisco, I paid $1,100 per month,” said Hilden. “When I left, it went to $4,000 per month and I understand it is now about $7,000 for that one-bedroom apartment.”

Hilden is retired now, but stays active in the education world. He just renewed his teaching credentials and recently signed up to be a Finlandia Alumni Mentor this fall.

“In mentoring, I have as much to learn as the student,” said Hilden. “It gives me a feeling that I can touch base with what is happening in education.”

Although Hilden’s sexuality changed the course of his life, he’s thankful for the opportunities he has.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in this country,” said Hilden. “In a way, I’m glad I am not ordained because I can speak now in a way or to a degree that I might have been hesitant to if I were a rostered member of the clergy. Gay rights isn’t about people wanting special rights, but more about people wanting to be treated fairly and to have basic rights of housing, employment, medicine, protection and faith.”

Hilden is especially proud to be a Suomi alumnus and having such strong ties to Finland, given Finland’s leading role in LGBTQ rights and legislation. Building off Finland’s model, FinnU too strives to offer programs and services specifically to help LGBTQ students manage their time at the university.

“Finlandia embraces the term ‘radical hospitality,’ which is part of our common calling as an institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,”  Dean of Students Erin Barnett said. “We see students for the contributions they bring to our community, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or faith. Over the past several years, we have worked to establish gender neutral suites in our residence hall, where we also ask for preferred names on the housing application. Since the residence hall is home for many of our students, we want it to be as inviting and inclusive a space as possible. In addition, we have signage to alert students to gender neutral restrooms across campus.

“And, finally, and most exciting for those of us who work with our students, is that we have an active student run organization, Lions Pride, which is creating an awareness, understanding, and respect for different sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Hilden may not have answered all of the big questions he was hoping to, but he does have sound advice for anyone looking to the scripture for guidance.

“Look at scripture not so much in a literalist point of view, that a book fell from heaven, but as a library,” said Hilden. “You have a library of all kinds of record keeping. Value an open mind.”

Next Steps

Learn about FinnU’s Liberal Studies program.

Learn about FinnU’s resources for those in the LGBTQIA+ community.

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