Luke Jensen, LGBT Equity Center’s Founding Director, Says Farewell After Nearly 35 Years
Luke Jensen, founding director of the LGBT Equity Center, retires this month after nearly 35 years at UMD. Below, he’s shown with center staff in 2012.
When Luke Jensen’s partner died of AIDS in 1990, he “withdrew for a while,” in his own words. He didn’t enjoy the public agitation of AIDS activism, the route many widowed partners took. But he wanted to honor the memory of his beloved, Jim Hendricks, so he forged a different path.
“What I could do, and what I decided to do, was to make where I am better,” Jensen said. “To leave it a better place than (how) I found it.”
That place was the University of Maryland, and this month, Jensen is retiring after nearly 35 years of advocating, creating and leading inclusive policies and programs that improved the campus experience for thousands of students, faculty and staff, such as founding the LGBT Equity Center, collaborating to start LGBT studies at UMD, and launching traditions such as Quelcome and Lavender Graduation.
Born into an Air Force family, Jensen, along with his parents and two siblings, eventually settled in the Salt Lake City area. He studied piano performance at Brigham Young University and graduate school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., before going on for a Ph.D. in musicology at New York University. (“About that third school, people were joking—you started at Brigham Young, then you went to Catholic, maybe you should have gone to a yeshiva,” deadpanned Jensen.)
In Manhattan, Jensen became friends with gay men and began to explore his own sexuality. His father had died when he was 17, and he was expected, he said, to be “the man of the house.” “I felt like I had a lot of responsibility (to my mother and younger sister), and in that culture, being gay wasn’t an option,” Jensen said of his Mormon community.
After deciding to focus on his own wishes and identity while in New York, Jensen started coming out. He told encouraging friends, followed by his brother and sister, who were happy for Jensen, and finally his mom, who was taken aback but eventually supportive.
Jensen and Hendricks—a science educator from the Bronx—moved to Maryland after Jensen completed his Ph.D. for him to take a position at the now-defunct Center for Studies in 19th-Century Music at UMD. After Hendricks’ death not long after, Jensen started to become more active with the Lesbian and Gay Staff and Faculty Association, and soon began pushing the university for domestic partner benefits. “If we had had domestic partner benefits, it would have made our life a lot easier,” said Jensen.
But Jensen quickly realized that the queer community of UMD needed more than just that. He held a retreat in his home for students, faculty and staff, and together they created a report called “Embracing Diversity” that called for a president’s commission on gay and lesbian issues, a center and an LGBT studies program.
“We started to dream together about what might be possible at Maryland,” said Marilee Lindemann, associate professor of English who served as director of the LGBT studies program from 2002-13 and who used to jokingly call Jensen her work husband. “Luke was very much a part of those conversations from the beginning.”
In 1998, the university launched what became the LGBT Equity Center, with Jensen at the helm as coordinator. Almost immediately, he instituted the practice of a “lavender graduation” to celebrate LGBTQ students and a welcome reception in the fall for queer students to connect with one another. Jensen also began working with other units on campus to help them better understand the needs of LGBTQ students who might fear awkwardness, confusion, hostility—or worse—if they came out.
“For the most part, people want to do the right thing. People want to be supportive. They just don’t know how to do it,” said Jensen. “And so a big focus in those early years was helping them to understand what the issues are and then apply (what they learned).”
For students in those early days, Jensen provided a haven where none existed before. As a first-year student, Joey DeSantos Jones ’02 attended a safe space meeting after “walking back and forth in front of that door three or four times” before entering, he said. He’d only come out to himself and a handful of others as gay a few months prior.
Jensen “introduced himself like, ‘Hi, I’m the head queer on campus,’” said Jones. “That probably frightened me at the time because it was someone who was so comfortable in their own skin, but I came to respect and admire that genuine authenticity.”
As he became active in the Pride Alliance student group (which Jensen worked with) and embarked on an independent study with Jensen, Jones became close with the “quirky” staffer, looking up to him as an example of how a gay man could exist in the world. “Knowing there was someone like that who was outspoken, in an established role on campus, that was important,” said Jones. “That visibility was critical.”
Today, the LGBT Equity Center, which Jensen still directs, has expanded to three full-time employees, two graduate assistants and a varying number of undergraduate workers. It offers educational programming and outreach events for the queer community on campus, and works to enact inclusive campus policies, like all-gender restroom availability and gender-neutral language in communications and databases.
The center’s impact is palpable: In June, the University of Maryland was named the No. 1 college in the nation for LGBTQ+ students by Campus Pride and BestColleges.
Jensen “is not just the leader of the Equity Center and for the LGBTQ+ community, but also a leader for campus,” said Georgina Dodge, vice president for diversity and inclusion. “That’s because he works collaboratively, … he never loses patience, and instead he partners to try to figure out how to do things better.”
Jensen notes that over the years, the rights of trans and nonbinary students have become more widely acknowledged, and that the main focus of the LGBT Equity Center now is intersectionality, or the idea that being queer is one identity that exists alongside race, socioeconomic status, age and other facets of one’s being.
After his last day on May 21, Jensen, who lost his husband, James Bolger, to lung cancer last summer, is eager to reconnect with his musical self and travel to see his family.
He’s also keen to see the next iteration of the LGBT Equity Center. “I think it’s great to give other people the opportunity to do some of the things that I’ve been able to do,” he said, adding that he hopes to see “a vision that maybe takes things in a different direction, but is still really supportive of LGBTQ people. Because … these are not static issues.”
For his colleagues, the occasion is bittersweet. “You can put little tear emojis for every time I think about Luke retiring,” said Dodge.
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