Monday, June 8, 2015

Why I Speak

Jane Meek
by Jane B. Meek
Becoming a Speaker for YES Institute is empowering. It can also be a little scary, as public speaking usually is. But what I didn’t anticipate was that it would also be healing.

I was first inspired to become a Speaker when I heard a 15-year-old tell her story during Communications Solutions™. I was moved by her strength and vulnerability. It was so powerful you couldn’t stop your heart from opening. In that moment I decided to become a part of the YES Institute Speakers Bureau.

That doesn’t mean I felt completely confident once I stood up before my first audience. So many experiences had remained fragmented in my mind, but now I had a reason to make them whole—into a whole narrative that, in telling, left me feeling humbled and blessed. I had outlined, rehearsed, and revised my story multiple times. Still, I was nervous.

My nerves disappeared the minute I started speaking, thank goodness. But the follow-up questions after my speech were an aspect of speaking I hadn’t quite prepared for. This was the first question from a young woman: “Why is being gay so accepted and so in your face now? I think a man and a woman should be together.”

Two people in the audience responded to her question first, defending the gay rights movement for focusing on the need to come out. The Facilitator jumped in and took some of the tension out of the air. Then something unexpected happened: this same young woman revealed in a follow-up comment that her sister was a lesbian.
It suddenly dawned on me that sometimes those who truly want to accept gay, bisexual, or transgender people have to first grapple with what they’ve been taught about gender and orientation. Once a dialogue has opened and people have a chance to voice their fear and concerns, only then can they make room for new ideas. I realized that perhaps I shouldn’t take their rhetoric so seriously, then, because it might not reflect what is actually in their hearts.

An older person in the audience had been moved by my story. She said her niece had just come out, but nobody in the family would talk about it. After listening to my experiences, she concluded that she would reach out to her niece and support her. At least two others talked about their gay family members, and it was so clear how genuinely they wanted to love and support their queer cousin, their step-sister, maybe even themselves. And that felt healing—for them and for me.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

From 0 to 60... in 10-Minutes!

by Alyssa Zirkman, Intern

Like any other YES Institute event, I got so much more than I bargained for when I attended Speakers Night. I thought I would simply work on facilitating Community Dialogues. When I left I was filled with even more love for people. It fueled my passion to make a difference on the topics of gender and orientation and become a YES Institute facilitator.

I stood in front of six other people as well as two coaches and practiced, for the first time, the role of a YES Institute facilitator. I was nervous and I was struggling to let the audience guide the conversation. At first,  I felt that I was able to "be with" my audience, as I responded to their fears and questions. I did have a tough time being authentic because I was more focused on saying the “right” thing. It was difficult for me to get out of my head and really listen to the audience’s concerns. After I  finished my practice, I received great coaching from a room of YES staff and other people participating at Speakers Night.

Normally, criticism is something I do not handle well; I tend to block out the critiques. With my new communication tools I was open to listening to the coaching. A simple ten minutes of practice and feedback left me wanting more; I want to become the best facilitator I can be. People were really generous with me, and it was like they were right there with me, to support this new purpose.

Finally, I saw people practice sharing their personal stories to become a part of the YES Institute Speakers Bureau. Even though I had heard the stories before, all the triumph and loss touched my heart in a new way. It was clear to me that YES Institute really does help others find their voice. Pretty quickly, it was time to go. Three hours went by way too fast.

Since Speakers Night, I have tried to re-focus myself on being authentic everywhere in my life. I cannot wait to continue my facilitator practice and coaching and eventually facilitate a Community Dialogue.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Now We're Talking!

I grew up in a small town where we didn’t talk about gender and orientation. Everyone around me seemed like they fit the expectations of being a man and being a woman. 

Sophomore year of high school I met Sarah in my European History Class. I got to know her spending the semester sitting next to her. She told me about rumors that had spread about her being a lesbian. Her friends stopped including her because of the rumors. The following year Sarah committed suicide. 

My band teacher sat us down and told us what happened. There were counselors all around us and the kids from choir came in to sing a song mourning the loss. I went to the memorial service the following week. It seemed almost normal that no one asked why Sarah did this, at least not openly, at least not with me. It wasn’t until much later that I began to piece things together and find my own answers.

In college I met friends who do not neatly fit the world's expectations of masculinity and femininity. I was curious and had many questions, but lacked the tools necessary to ask them. One of my friends suggested I take a course on gender at University of Miami. I felt the class often reinforced the masculine-feminine dichotomy, until YES Institute came to guest lecture. 

It was the first time, finally, I began to understand, or at least appreciate, the complexities and the impact of gender and orientation. I saw that no one fits neatly into the masculine or feminine box because gender expression is a continuum, not binary. No one is completely feminine or masculine. We all express ourselves as a unique mix of the two. This sense of understanding left me wanting more.

That led to me becoming an intern at YES Institute. It was only then that I began gaining tools needed to support my friends and educate others. Not only that, but YES Institute helped me with the relationships in my personal life. After taking Communication Solutions™my relationships started improving, especially with my mom. This internship has truly been an incredible experience.

Monday, June 2, 2014

First Steps of a Leader

Brandon’s family thought they had a daughter. When Brandon turned 16, he courageously told his family that he knew himself to be a boy. His family wanted a way to understand what Brandon was going through, so they came to YES Institute.

They started taking courses in May of 2013, and have since taken every course we offer. Empowered with a new way to understand gender and share his powerful story, Brandon has become a speaker with YES Institute and is using his voice to bring education on gender everywhere he can.

At 17, Brandon wrote a letter of gratitude to his YES Family. He collected his savings and donated $100.00 to YES Institute. We are so inspired by his generosity and his leadership that we have created a new giving category called Junior Leaders.

If you’re inspired by Brandon’s leadership join us at the next YES Institute Young Professional Society event to hear more about Brandon’s story and learn about YIYPS. It’s happening at Havana 1957 in Brickell on June 4th, from 6pm to 9pm. To RSVP follow this link to the Facebook page or email

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jolted Back to Life

By Tico Baez, Intern

This month’s edition of AARP The Magazine features YES Institute's CFO, Eva Leivas-Andino and her son Paolo Andino. The article showcases brave people who have endured a traumatic moment in their lives only to bounce back feeling more capable than ever. 

Growing up, Paolo felt like he did not belong within his own family. Paolo shared his orientation with his family, but it was a subject that wasn't talked about for eight years. Eva was worried about what others might think of her if they were to find out that Paolo was gay. Once Eva and Paolo were able to have open and constructive communication, their relationship completely changed. 

This is a struggle that many families experience. Being at the center of a challenge often stops us from seeing a solution. When Eva walked through the then blue doors of YES Institute in 1996, she did not know the communication skills she was about to learn. She took Communication Solutions™ and soon became a speaker with YES Institute. This course profoundly impacted her life and the people in her life. 

Read the rest of Eva and Paolo's story at

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How to Belong in High School

By Tico Baez

Growing up, I was always compared to my three masculine brothers. My siblings criticized me for caring about my appearance whereas my brothers could wear the same shirt everyday for a week and not be criticized. I was constantly pushed to join a sports team but my siblings were never asked to join an artistic or academic club. In high school, they played on the football team, while I performed in drama classes.

These comparisons made me feel like I didn’t belong in my own family. It seemed like no one around me was listening to me, about what I wanted. The arts became my outlet. I felt I could be myself in drama club. By my senior year, my friends accepted me just as I was. Most importantly, I felt like I could be myself regardless of others’ criticism or comparisons.

Recently, YES Institute was invited to Florida Atlantic University’s Alexander D. Henderson High School. I decided to tag along as an observer. YES Institute facilitators spoke to the entire freshman class about the expectations we all learn about gender and the assumptions we make about orientation.

During the dialogue the students were very active in the discussion.

These were some of my favorite quotes:

“I learned that people are bullied and targeted based on gender expression, not orientation. I’ve never thought of that before.”

“I have a friend who is transgender, and when Sam was talking about when he wanted to kill himself, I understood how my friend felt.”

“Your body does not decide your gender.”

“Our society is very eager to place labels on experiences that are universal. The YES Institute dialogue impacted me to think about my words and thoughts.”

I never had a discussion like this when I was in high school. It inspired me to think about all the students who may be feeling the way I did growing up, and now have a new way of thinking about gender and orientation.

These students have the opportunity to be themselves, and not have to follow the expectations set by society.

Friday, February 21, 2014

New Voices in the Catholic Church

By Roxy Sora, Chair of the Board of Directors

Roxy Sora
Growing up Catholic, it was very challenging to accept my orientation. Because I felt like the two identities were incompatible, I eventually left the Catholic church that had been such a huge part of my life. Almost immediately, I felt an emptiness, a missing.

A few years down the road, I spoke to a priest who was also a family friend. When he asked me what I was doing there, I simply said, “I need you to tell me that I'm okay.” I will always remember his response: “You have every right to attend the communion table as anyone else.”  This opened up a whole new perspective for me, and I was able to return to the church with a whole heart.

It was the very same priest who first shared information about YES Institute with me. After I became involved with YES Institute as a volunteer, and later as the Chair of the Board of Directors, I knew I wanted to bring our work to the Catholic Church. I didn't know how I was going to make that happen, but I knew I was committed to finding a way.

The seed of opportunity was planted towards the end of 2013 when YES Institute was invited to a health fair at St. John Neumann. I asked my father Efrain, and sister Cristy, to volunteer at the YES Institute booth as they’re both avid supporters and investors in the work of YES Institute. My father, a preacher for several years, was approached by a colleague he knew from Christ the King Catholic Church. After sharing about YES Institute, we were invited to facilitate a community dialogue on bullying, gender and orientation with the High School Youth Group at Christ the King.

The youth leader began the meeting with a beautiful reflection about being open minded and the importance of “rethinking” topics we sometimes avoid or resist.  Brittney, YES Institute’s Program Manager, created a space for open and authentic communication and sharing among the youth, families and church members present for the dialogue. I also had the incredible opportunity to share about my journey reconciling my orientation and my relationship with the church.

After I shared, it became very clear that these topics deeply impacted everyone in the room. The students candidly shared about gender based bullying masked as gay slurs, seen at school every day. Parents expressed helplessness at not knowing how to create safer homes and classrooms. Many shares were about close family members who struggle to accept their own orientation.  

The evening was a truly magical experience for me.  Ripple effects are happening with more requests coming from other communities of faith. One of the participants expressed an interest in inviting YES Institute to speak at her Religious Studies class at St. Thomas University. Also, Christ the King's Youth Leader is connecting YES Institute with a nearby Catholic church to bring this conversation to their youth group.

This one evening reignited my passion and commitment to creating communities of faith where EVERYONE feels accepted, safe and loved. I am so thankful to have been a part of it, and I cannot wait to see where YES Institute will go next!