Perched high on a worn, reddish-orange seat, Pam Bennett drives around Aurora in a 1989 Bronco with a roaring engine she built herself, looking over each passing street like a mother scrutinizing her children. Because she sees so much promise in this place, every shortcoming is a grave disappointment. It's a drive this would-be Aurora City Councilmember-at-Large has made countless times. She's tall, with bright pink fingernails and a deep, commanding voice that wonders how many millions of dollars it must take to bring sewer, water, and roads out to the massive residential developments taking over the prairie. "All we have is bedroom and sprawl," she says. "We're not creating something good here." The tour is also a personal one for her, passing landmarks like her former barracks at Lowry Air Force Base, and the field where she used to play baseball—trying hard to fit in as one of the guys. That's because back then, Bennett was one of the guys. Now she's one of three openly transgender city council candidates in the United States.
To the outside world, Bruce Bennett was a guy's guy. Born in Detroit in 1950, he played sports and taught himself to build engines. But even as a youth, Bruce knew something about him was different; he just didn't know what. "When I was born, there were no gays, lesbians, transgender people. They didn't exist," Bennett says. When other kids would ask him what his name would be if he could name himself, he'd say Pam.
Later, while attending Michigan State University, he spent time in the library stacks. "I knew I needed to search, research who I was," Bennett says. "It was constant through the '60s, '70s, '80s." But Bruce still lived his expected life. He married, graduated, and joined the Air Force, eventually moving with his wife to Aurora and raising two sons. "I wouldn't call it unhappy; I had a lot of great times with my wife," Pam says. "What I had was a constant nagging, a constant deep inner feeling that this is not right."
That life ended in the early '90s. Hepatitis B and C, viruses Bruce assumes he contracted from a blood transfusion after a stomach hemorrhage in 1980, were attacking his liver. He narrowly escaped death, the chemotherapy-type experimental treatment ravaging his body, and it took years to regain normal strength. Bedridden for a decade and too sick to focus on anything but survival, Bennett temporarily stopped searching for his identity. "[The illness] was the roughest thing I ever did in my life, other than coming out to my wife," Bennett says.
Because male breast enlargement was a side effect of the medication, Bennett stumbled across Internet diaries of transgender people while looking for medical information. "At first I didn't read the diaries. It was the wrong hit, so I'd go somewhere else," Bennett says. "But then I'd read a diary.... [After a year of this] it finally dawned on me that this is probably something I need to look at real close. There was a subtle holding back. It's hard to accept you may have found out who you are and at the same time going, 'Oh my god, I can't be that.'"
By January 2003, there was no turning back. "It's an intense internal battle for many of us," Bennett says. "You're looking at, one, knowing that you're living a lie, but two, you don't want to hurt anybody." Over the coming year, she went to therapy, took hormones, and eventually told her family before becoming Pam full-time to the world. "It's a tough decision," she says. "You have to go in knowing you're going to lose everything. I spent 52 years learning who I was and understanding me and accepting myself. You can't expect your family to do it overnight."
Bennett quickly became the political face of the Colorado transgender community, visiting the Capitol three days a week as a citizen lobbyist for Equal Rights Colorado and other causes. "She was always like, 'Someone's got to be there. Somebody's got to let these legislators know we're not going away,'" says Nicole Garcia, a transgender friend Bennett met at the Gender Identity Center of Colorado.
Bennett is known in Democratic circles for her ability to get things done. (In May, Governor Ritter signed a bill she'd been pushing since 2005 to add sexual orientation and transgender status to state nondiscrimination law.) She campaigned door-to-door for candidates and taught people how to lobby. "I was immediately impressed with her fearless attitude toward citizen advocacy, but also her knowledge of the political process and people involved," says Karen Hart, first vice chair of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party. "Wherever I went, she seemed to know everyone, be everywhere. To see her at the Capitol, she was completely at home in her element there."
When Rep. Morgan Carroll needed a new roommate and renter in her Aurora home, Bennett moved in. They talked politics all the time, and Bennett got the bug. After filing her candidacy in January, Bennett braced herself for the attacks. There have only been a handful of openly transgender elected officials around the country. In Arvada, Joanne Conte lost her re-election bid for City Council in 1995 after being outed. But apart from the occasional crackpot e-mail, the only substantive attacks she heard about were rumors that fellow Democrats had called her an embarrassment, though never to her face. "I was expecting that," she says.
A month before mail-in ballots go out, driving toward Aurora's center, Bennett's mood lightens as she talks about the city's diversity, including the 86 different languages spoken in the community's public schools. Since first coming here in 1972, she's hated hearing the town described as a bedroom community for Denver. Now, with the redevelopment of Fitzsimons, she sees a historic opportunity to lure major medical research and thus—what Aurora has always lacked—high-paying, quality jobs. "We have potential to be a world-class city," she says. "We're at a point now where we can do it, and I'm the one [who can lead]. I finally decided what I need to do in my life. Some people know when they're six; some know when they're 20; some of us wait a little bit longer. Public servant. That's me."
The hard part of transitioning ended more than a year ago, but in a way, it never stops. Bennett has yet to have gender reassignment surgery, mostly due to the cost. The way she sees it, her identity is an advantage. Having been out for four years, she's finally confident in who she is and has strength and brass from her life as a man that most women her age weren't raised to have. "To me, [the surgery is] the finale," she says. "I'm not going to focus entirely on that. My world is what I have now and having fun in politics. The big blonde can take on just about anybody."