Most superheroes have a specific skill set—a superpower that they use, mostly, to save mankind (often while cracking jokes). They almost always have a cool origin story … but an origin story that involves Jersey City, N.J.?
“It is the most diverse city in America,” Jean-Marie Navetta says of her hometown, She doesn’t sound a thing like Snooki, probably because her parents were both teachers.
Prior to their careers in education, her dad was what Navetta laughingly calls “a dirty hippie version of Danny DeVito,” and her mom “looked like The Flying Nun.” That bit about Mom is not a joke. She was a Catholic nun serving in Puerto Rico (home of The Flying Nun) when she took leave to care for an ailing family member. She had every intention of returning—until she walked into Ferrari’s Cafe in Manhattan, where that “dirty hippie” worked. And that, as they say, was that.
They married, had kids and became teachers. The combination of robust parenting and Jersey City’s hyper-diverse demographics shaped Navetta’s world. A move to Oregon for her last two years of high school awakened her multiculturalism.
“I could count on one hand the number of kids who were not white in my school,” she said. “I became aware of race. I became very aware of class; I became aware of all these different things. It was a big-eye opener for me.”
Navetta surprised herself even more when it came time to choose school activities. In Jersey, her extracurriculars were sports. “On my first day of high school in Oregon, the speech team suggested I come to a debate meeting. I went, and I never looked back.”
In the debate world, Navetta did speeches—“rhetorical criticism, oratory, informative, impromptu, extemporaneous. And then I also did debate, and you compete against people from all over the world. It’s like the biggest nerd-fest you’ve ever seen.”
This led to a scholarship at a Catholic university—but when she tried to start an LGBTQ+ group on campus, they were not having it. “After a year, I gave up my scholarship and went to Montclair State University in New Jersey, which was a fantastic experience for me.”
She earned a degree in philosophy. I cheekily wondered if she had a post-college job plan. “My father predicted homelessness” she deadpans. “But when I graduated, I wanted nothing more than to go to D.C. and to get into political work and advocacy.”
Although an active advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, Navetta didn’t come out until she was 25, when she was living in Washington, D.C., and about to take a job with the national office of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Her parents were shocked.
“They thought all of my LGBTQ+ stuff was political, because that’s who I am, and that’s how they raised me, not realizing it was also about me,” she said. “I told them via letter. I got an email back the next morning which said, ‘Unconditional is unconditional. We love you.’ That’s all it said, and that’s all I needed.”
Soon after, Navetta fell in love with chef Jude Medeiros. By 2008, they were planning a ceremony in Aruba when same-sex marriage became legal in California. They did both.
Navetta is a well-informed and energetic speaker. In fact, everything about her is engaging. National PFLAG saw that, too, and Navetta was given the title of director of learning and inclusion. The organization tapped her as the lead architect of the Straight for Equality project which “invites, educates and engages new allies to help achieve full inclusion for LGBTQ+ people.”
“We usually work with corporations. All our work is based on the concept of allies being true changemakers when it comes to environment. We can change laws, but it doesn’t always mean people’s attitudes change, or their behavior,” Navetta says. “We’ve worked with, I think, 150 companies, from Fortune 500 companies all the way down.”
Navetta later led the development and launch of the PFLAG Academy Online, a monthly web-based learning program for PFLAG chapters to build skills and understanding.
Because of her mom’s work in Puerto Rico, when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Navetta and a friend organized volunteers to rebuild homes of LGBTQ+ people. That led to an appointment to the board of Waves Ahead, a Puerto Rico-based LGBTQ+ organization, of which she is quite proud.
About three years ago, some Palm Springs friends invited the couple for a visit. “I didn’t really want to come,” Navetta says, laughing. “I’m all about the coasts. We were here for about three hours before we looked at each other and said, ‘This is where we need to live.’”
Of course, 2020 was a year of deep depression, change and adjustment for everyone. Navetta turned to the internet and started National PFLAG’s first weekly interactive web series, Something to Talk About, which she hosts every Thursday, discussing LGBTQ+ issues and culture. In her “spare time” (in quotes, because, come on), she has written four books. Four.
As always, I ask if there’s anything else she’d like me to know, and Medeiros jumps in: “What she’s not telling you about herself is that she’s brilliant. And she uses humor to deliver tough messages. And she gets away with it.”
“And I’m cute,” Navetta adds.
“And she’s cute,” Medeiros echoes.
On a whim, I ask Medeiros if she’s still working. She is, but she’s stepped away from corporate life to spearhead food efficiency in the kitchen. “I wanted to be more of a do-gooder, like my wife. So, I run my company’s food-waste program. We are trying to reduce our food waste 50% by 2025.”
So, to recap: Medeiros is literally saving the planet for the people Navetta is transforming into accepting, inclusive humans. They’re two badass super-girls saving the world with the cunning use of words.