Jenn Jevertson is the program manager at New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a program created by the Santa Fe Mountain Center, a Tesuque nonprofit. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network organizes free events and trainings to help youth develop strength and leadership skills. Right now, the Alliance is gearing up for its Feb. 20-21 Advocacy Camp, at which high-school-aged youth advocate at the Roundhouse.

SFR: How do you prepare the youth to get involved at the legislative session?
JJ: The first day is a training day, and the youth learn how the legislative system in New Mexico works. There’s experiential exercises helping them understand how it works, and they practice and roll-play interacting with legislators, telling their story and how different bills and legislation put forth affect them. They learn to advocate for their rights and for things that would affect them, something like domestic partnership. Technically, these kids aren’t 18; they can’t get married. But they understand that, when there’s not full and equal rights for everyone, we’re all kind of at risk.

When did Advocacy Camp get started?
We’ve actually been helping involve youth in some way or another in the legislative process since 2003. I believe one of our first advocacy days in partnership with Equality New Mexico was in 2005 and, for the past three years, it’s evolved into an overnight camp. It’s a two-day event instead of just a one-day at the Roundhouse. In the last several years, we’ve had between 30 and 50 [youth] show up.

Which pieces of legislation have youth been involved with in the past?
In 2008, when we were at the Legislature and there was a bill [HB 9, the Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act, which died in the Senate] that was up, we went to the hearing and the youth stood up in front of this packed room. All the legislators were sitting up there and they shared their story, and shared what was going to affect them. One of the legislators commented that that was what helped swing his vote—the powerful story of the youth that were in the room.

Is it hard for the youth to hear some of the comments that conservative legislators and lobbyists say about being gay?
It’s really challenging because the things they hear said about supposedly who they are is really hurtful. And it’s one thing that we always have to prepare the youth for, that some of the things they are going to hear and some of the signs they may see are going to be pretty intense and very likely can be hard to stomach. We support them through it and walk them through processing their feelings around it. It’s really hard for them because the people that are saying those awful things, not everybody is like that, but there’s a lot of folks that are extreme in their views and they’re often the loudest. But although it’s tough for our youth, it also motivates them for why it’s so important that they are standing tall and fighting for the rights to protect LGBTQ people.

How does that experience affect them?
We see some really amazing growth when they realize that they have the power to affect our society and our community here in Santa Fe and in New Mexico for the better, so that everyone is protected and has equal rights. We watch them swell with this sense of empowerment and a sense of purpose.

Which legislation will they focus on this year, since the domestic partnership bill probably won’t be introduced?
We’re just getting organized right now, but our youth will definitely be involved in advocating for any and all bills that affect their rights.

Is it hard to keep up your passion for an issue like domestic partnership when the bill fails to pass year after year?
I think that’s one of the challenges. In 2003, the hate crimes bill finally passed, and people in New Mexico had been working on that for over 10 years. So I think there’s definitely some fatigue, but the issue doesn’t become any less important over the years.