There's a parallel between Ruben Ortega's gay rights activism and his career goals—though it might not be readily obvious. When he starts at Cornell University in the fall, he wants to study hospitality administration. "I want to focus on real estate and project development, and opening hotels," Ortega says.
The Eldorado High School senior sees his career choice as a natural extension of his work in the LGBT community. Clear communication is what the hospitality industry is all about, Ortega says. The fight for equality isn’t much different, he adds. "In both environments, one wants to feel accepted and feel invited, feel a warm atmosphere of acceptance. Both areas work hand in hand."
He was named the 2009 recipient of the Neil Isbin Scholarship, which is presented annually to an Albuquerque high school senior who promotes human rights and human dignity. Herb and Kathie Isbin established the scholarship trust fund in memory of their son, Neil, who died of AIDS at age 46. Neil labored for more than 14 years as a human rights activist in Albuquerque and Houston.
Ortega's route to activism wasn't without trial. He was living with his aunt and uncle in Texas during his junior year when he came out. "There was some miscommunication and confusion with my relatives, and I needed to come home," Ortega says. "When I came back to Albuquerque, it was a dark time for me, but my parents were very supportive."
Ortega says this personal experience prompted him to push for strengthening communication between LGBT youth and their families and friends. "When kids come out, they're lost and confused, and if there aren't any resources, then they go to other places, such as drugs and alcohol," he says. "I didn't want them to have to go to those negative things. That's where my activism comes from."
He joined Eldorado's Gay-Straight Alliance, part of a national network of student clubs with the mission of fighting homophobia and transphobia in schools. He became the club's president and built up the Albuquerque GSA Network. "We've given ourselves more publicity in school. Now people know what GSA is for, what we do," he says. "If a student is being bullied or harassed, they know we're there—and it can save a life." He also does statewide training for students looking to start their own clubs. "Students recognize our club, and we've gotten more respect and recognition from administration and students on campus."
“When kids come out, they're lost and confused, and if there aren't any resources, then they go to other places, such as drugs and alcohol.”
Ortega also credits his drive to the steadfast idea of self, promoted by the movement. "The one thing that this community, the LGBT community, has taught me is to be proud of who you are and empower others to do the same," he says. "Be involved and help others be comfortable with themselves."
To compel students to consider identity construction, his Eldorado club put up posters from ThinkB4YouSpeak. The national campaign is aimed at squashing the phrase "that's so gay" and urges people to instead "say something original." The posters use negative stereotypes of other high school identities (“That's so 'cheerleader who like can't like say smart stuff.' ”) to urge students to think before they speak. "It's educating students to see that with that language, they are recognizing and harming a specific group. Before they'll say it [“that’s so gay”], they'll think about it."
Outside of school, Ortega volunteers for Equality New Mexico and Albuquerque PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). He lobbied at two legislative sessions for domestic partnership benefits in New Mexico. The experience exposed him to the reality of disappointment in human rights efforts. "Both times we failed to get a law passed, but we're striving for the next session."
Ortega says he wants to create safe places that provide young people with information as well as understanding. In April, the Albuquerque network co-sponsored Expressfest with New Mexico Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Program. "TUPAC had stats that stated that LGBT youth members are twice as likely to be subjected to tobacco usage because of the stress of coming out or discrimination," he says. The teen event was also a communication tool. "I feel like LGBT people cannot fully express themselves in some areas," Ortega says, "so students could participate in self-expression through poetry, dance, art, music and whatnot."
Albuquerque Gay-Straight Alliance hosted the first LGBT-friendly prom in the city on May 2. The event was co-sponsored by Albuquerque PFLAG, on which Ortega serves as a board member. "I'm the go-getter, the organizer," he says. "What it took for this prom was to network with other GSAs and with PFLAG organizations. It was allowing me to be intergenerational and work with both organizations."
When he leaves Albuquerque for college in the fall, Ortega says he will leave behind a growing youth-oriented gay rights community. Still, he acknowledges, there are voids. "We noticed that middle school students get neglected in LGBT organizations, and I feel like that's an age where a lot of self-identification and self-discovery happen," he says. "Hopefully by next year we can start a mentorship, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and get middle school students to partner up with high school GSA members for support."
He plans to continue his activism after his time at Cornell. "I want to establish my own company in the hospitality industry," he says. "And I want to be a leader in the business, take a lead in discrimination laws and provide a haven for all employees, where they feel safe. Not everyone gets that."
Besides the Neil Isbin Scholarship, Ortega says he recognizes other rewards his activism garners. "If I was never involved, if I'd never done what I'd done, I'd never have gotten into Cornell," Ortega says. "Colleges admire those who go that extra mile and help others. I know that's what they look for on top of scholastic achievement. I know why now. By being involved and by doing things that help others, it sets character for yourself."