The smile that would not judge

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Originally published in The Metropolitan. Oct. 1, 2005

Life in The Tivoli is a little dimmer today.

There once was a smile that lit up the entire building. The smile belonged to Karen Bensen and she gave it to anyone, everyone. I never saw Bensen without a smile on her face. Even if it was just a half smile, she always wore it, unimpeachably, in style.

It is time for change, Bensen tells me, “I need to do something new. I’ve been here a long time.” The director of Auraria’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Student Services has left the campus after nearly 12 years. From a desolate 10 by10 office on the third floor of the Central Classroom building to a vibrant, spacious Tivoli location, Bensen has been on the move each and every day, making the campus a better, brighter and more open place for all.

On Aug. 31, Bensen left Auraria for a new role at the University of Denver. She will be the director of co-curricular programs for students and faculty.

GLBTSS had been in existence for just under a year when Bensen was hired as the coordinator. “There was barely room for a guest,” she told me of her first location. Her own, separate office, adjacent to the current location, may be slightly bigger. “I had students doing paperwork on the corner of my desk.”

Her work was obvious. The downtown college needed some educating; her students, needed more room than the closet they were trying to escape from.

So she went to work, never imaging that nearly 3,000 school days later she’d still be doing what she would come to love.

“I never wanted to stay this long,” she chuckled, reflecting on those first weeks.

But it wasn’t all fun and games in the beginning. When Bensen arrived on the Auraria campus that first day so many moons ago, she didn’t even know where to park.

“The initial 10 minutes was awesome, not in a cool way, but the fact was I was in awe,” she said.

It didn’t take long for Bensen to learn just how much work needed to be done. In her first month on the job, she tells me, she joined the faculty of Metro for a working lunch. She wanted to put herself out there in hopes of making her work known.

“I sat down, and the guy across the table-a former dean-introduced himself. He was very friendly,” Bensen said. However, when she mentioned her role on campus, “his whole demeanor changed. He didn’t look or speak to me for the rest of the lunch.”

Bensen felt awful, shamed. “He doesn’t even know me, and he had already made a decision of who I am?” she questioned. “That made me realize how much work I had to do.”

Bensen’s main objective was simple: she had to create a safe place for GLBT students and efficiently educate the greater Auraria community to their issues.

It could be said that Bensen learned as much as she taught; each day was a learning experience. Bensen has always been an advocate for learning and dialogue. Her mantra perhaps is to talk about it. It, being anything.

In the mid-’90s during a Coming Out Day, a student had produced a piece of artwork some found to be in poor taste. Bensen wouldn’t tell me what it was, but she would admit that in haste she told students to cover the artwork without having seen it herself. It was her biggest mistake she said.

“The student was rather upset we censored him,” she said. But Bensen stuck to her guns and stood by the censored piece with the student and discussed the art, censorship and other GLBT issues with participants. Looking back Bensen said, “We were probably wrong, but it was a great learning experience.”

More recently, Zia Klamm, perhaps Metro’s first out transgender, gave Bensen a different lesson.

Klamm, who just graduated with a degree in social work, came to Bensen by way of Rainbow Alley, a youth group sponsored by The Center, a resource for Colorado GLBT. At the time the “T” in GLBT stood for Trans. Bensen thought it was an appropriate term. But Klamm had felt differently.

“It was like abbreviating me, trans what?” she said.

So after talking it over, Bensen made the change.

“It was validating, her listening to me and acting on one of my suggestions,” Zia said.

Bensen has been all over Auraria. She and GLBTSS have occupied a total of seven spaces.

What did keep Bensen around was the diversity in her job and the campus. She was a counselor, supervisor, mentor, administrator, friend, ally, and at one point was dubbed “Super Gay Mom” by her students.

To say Bensen has strong ties to the campus would be an understatement. She and her partner Cindy Deim were married on the campus-twice.

They first renewed their vows on campus in 1996, when 50 same-sex couples were married in a community service at St. Cajetan’s.

“It was very different,” Bensen said.

However, her second ceremony-just last October-was more personal. It was National Coming Out Day and would be her last as sponsor. She and Deim, and Erin Durban and Mishka Char exchanged vows under The Flagpole.

“What was special about this was that my minister (Rev. Emily Hassler) officiated,” she said.

It was special for Durban, too. She never thought she’d make it the altar. Durban said before she met Bensen she wasn’t sure love existed.

“My parents were divorced when I was two. I never thought I was going to get married. I didn’t want it. It was never modeled for me. But Bensen showed me it could be done,” Durban said.

If Bensen were any action, it would be love. Ask anyone; they’ll tell you.

When Durban first met Bensen in the summer of 2001, she was wearing a blue and white-checkered dress. “She reminded me of Dorothy,” Erin said.

Durban, the recipient of the Gill scholarship, was given a job in the GLBTSS office and had Bensen almost as a private mentor. “I was intimidated; she was just so nice. She is the most genuinely nice person I have met in my entire life.”

Bensen helped Durban get accustomed to Denver. “She was my anchor. I can’t describe how important she is to me,” Erin said.

Char echoed Durban, “She was an ally to everyone who walked into the office.”

Klamm said Bensen’s reach was far more than the GLBT community. “People who had no where else to turn went there.”

Klamm recalled a female student coming into the office the semester she worked there. The student said she was sexually harassed by a professor, and no one would listen to her. She tried talking to the authorities, the deans, but no one would hear her. “But Karen listened and she made sure the woman was heard and action was taken.

“It’s just an amazing place for the entire school, and Karen, she was the spirit of that. She knew how to listen. She knew how to take action,” Klamm said. “She has this kind of magic around her.”

Julie Thompson, now a medical student at UCD, credits her success to Bensen and her work in the GLBTSS office. “Honestly, that job was key to helping me develop my skills. She gave me a lot of space to do my thing. I had to manage a lot on my own.”

“The support she offered me. Giving me space to learn, make my own decisions, it was key for me,” Thompson said.

Thompson, a bisexual said, “If it weren’t for that job, I don’t know where I’d be. I feel really good having worked with Karen.”

Bensen paused when I asked what her greatest accomplishment was. She’s had so many-great and small from launching the speaking bureau and National Coming Out Day-the list may be endless.

“We’ve come a long way…” she said.

But her greatest feat is listening to those who otherwise would be mute.

“There are students who are alive today because of this program. That feels good,” she said softly. “Being a young adult is stressful anyway. It just adds a whole new layer of complications if you can’t share your queer issues. Too often, there isn’t someone to turn to.”

Her listening and guidance created a family for those who were rejected. “The people in this office have become a surrogate family to many,” Bensen said, remembering her students.

But, she said, her work and the work of the office will never be done. “It’s a process; the work isn’t ever done. I hope the program continues to make an impact.”

Bensen is perhaps in more awe today than when she first came to Auraria. She is happy, sad, excited, scared, ready, unwilling. But most of all she’s proud.

“I’m proud of this campus. This office started in 1993 when there were only 20 similar offices across the country. We’ve been on the cutting edge. We have a history of openness and it must continue. Be brave,” said she.

I couldn’t help but ask Bensen her outlook on the future of the GLBT community. Would we ever be given the right to love? Will we be equals?

“In time,” she reassured me. “GLBT people need to get very, very brave and come out all over the place.”

More locally, Bensen forecasted some of the issues the campus will face with in coming years. She suggested that Metro and CCD should look into domestic partnership benefits (UCD already has them), gender identity expression, more unisex bathrooms and progressive policies for the new residence halls being built.

Her final message to the campus: “Relish in the diversity of the campus and take advantage of getting to know people who are different than yourselves. It will help you understand who you are better, and you will have a better sense of the diversity on this planet. Live and thrive off the diversity.”

In Bensen’s last few days at Metro she had a to-do list longer than the Nile. Each day she would take a few items off and add a dozen more.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to get it all done, ” she said. Among the things needing to be accomplished prior to her departure was Coming Out Day, perhaps the office’s biggest event of the year. In fact, she was late to our first interview because she was tied up in red tape at the city-county building requesting a platform for the event.

She also wanted to make sure all was in order-or at least understandable-for her temporary replacement Denny Boyd, currently director of Student Orientation.

“It’s all out of my hands after Wednesday.” There were fear and relief in her voice.

I had to ask Bensen for one more favor. I was hoping she’d have some pictures from her past activities in the office. It was one more thing she didn’t need to do. But she wrote it down on her sheet of paper lying next to her computer. She promised to do her best.

And she, of course, came through. Thursday morning I walked into the office. Sticking out of my mailbox was a grey envelope; the contents inside were three pictures from past Coming Out days.

There was a note attached, and on the last line she simply wrote her name and a smiley face.

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