Friday, September 30, 2011

I Am Not My Label

By Annie Liu

Gender and orientation can be tricky subjects — especially in the already confusing world I know to be high school. All the hype seems to surround the use of labels: individuals are Black or Asian or Hispanic; folks are either “in a relationship” or “keeping it casual”; we are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, pansexual — even asexual! Teenagers, like the rest of society, resort to labeling every facet of their lives. It is no wonder that so many people are stuck on the puzzling endeavor of creating — let’s face it — a single term that can define the true essence of who we are.

As the co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, I have witnessed firsthand the widespread confusion that comes as a consequence of associating with a label. A nationally recognized network of student clubs, GSA’s own namesake is misleading. When students hear “gay” and “straight,” they automatically assume that the group is only for those who identify as gay or straight. In reality, the alliance welcomes all identities and works to raise awareness and erase the stereotypes around LGBTQ (another label). The club is also a safe space where everyone is viewed equally and can bring up new ideas without worrying about being discriminated against. Our name, however, serves only as an obstacle and often isolates and excludes students.

Just last week, my fellow YES Institute intern Caro was discussing why she tells people that she’s a “lesbian.” Although she would prefer to not identify with the label, it is a shortcut to expressing her orientation. For Caro, it is simply easier in daily social interactions to eliminate any misunderstandings that may arise. For her purposes, labels actually help diminish confusion. Nevertheless, calling herself a lesbian has its downside - with her label arrives the distorted idea that all lesbians are tough and “butch.” Because Caro has long hair and is not what people would perceive as overtly masculine, she deals with wayward glances and remarks from peers who simply do not believe her. Our culture’s deep-seated stereotypes get buried in the collapse of gender and orientation. Labels themselves are just words, but what people do with them can create painfully unnecessary experiences that dramatically impact a multitude of lives.

In terms of my own orientation, I have opted for no label. Often enough, I am asked the question “What is your sexual orientation?” Accustomed to these inquiries, I declare that I like people based on who they are, not what sex they were assigned at birth. Out of convenience, pansexuality is my chosen response on surveys and conditions in which there is no “other” option. The label is the closest I can get to describing my interests. Aligning with this term, however, is something I find disheartening. What can a single word really say about me? A label cannot encompass the various depths and layers of who I am and what I prefer. This label doesn’t say anything about my Chinese heritage, love of electronic music, and connection to nature. Nor does it share that I’m an avid reader and am fascinated with the human mind. I am not my label. Why let a little word distract from what I’m really about? In the end, only the investment of time will make way for an understanding of Annie Liu.

I’m eager to further explore the impact of labeling in our culture in Deciphering the Matrix of Orientation during YES Institute’s week long series of educational courses in January - Communicating Powerfully & ReVisioning Gender.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A New View of Gender

by Dustin Doing, YES Institute Intern

Dustin Doing
Before starting my practicum for my University of Miami Human & Social Development undergraduate program at YES Institute, I rode my bicycle across the unrelenting traffic of US-1 to join the YES Institute team for lunch, a time they use to socialize and hash out anything they have on their minds. I was surprised and impressed at how inviting everyone was. Since meeting me that day, they have made more of an effort to get to know me than colleagues at any of my previous jobs and internships.

Lunch with the staff of YES Institute on that fateful Thursday afternoon only gave me a brief glimpse of the unique and enthusiastic people I would be working with in the coming months. Then, I decided to take the Gender Continuum course, part one of a series of lectures and discussions about various contexts that inform the way that we understand ourselves, others and the world. 

"The Gender Continuum linked fragmented pieces of understanding, knowledge and perceptions into a coherent package. It provided me with valuable statistics and research to better advocate this expanded perspective of gender." –Rachel Becker, University of Miami Graduate Counseling Student 
After another bike ride from my apartment, I felt anxious to start and a bit scared to participate in an 8-hour workshop. Did I mention it was on a Saturday... at 9am? Despite my worries, we all settled in at YES Institute and introduced ourselves. The group shared a wide range of viewpoints in a setting that valued honesty and respect to the rare extent that complete strangers got excited about opening up to one another.

Dusty posing a question to the Gender Continuum participants.
While I have participated in seminars about gender and orientation in the past, I did not anticipate the impact that my first YES Institute course would have on me. I was moved by the guest speaker and engaged in critical thinking throughout the day. Not only was I questioning my own views on gender, but I felt I had a lot to contribute to the overall discussion. This creative environment served as a space to hear and think about a diversity of human perceptions and stories.

"Not only did I reflect and find insights about my own experience of gender, but I heard stories from the group and speakers that have inspired me to look at the world differently and become a stronger advocate for change."  –Dusty Doing
I will continue to ride my bike across US-1 and intern at YES Institute through the School of Education at the University of Miami. As someone who believes that all people take on roles as teachers and learners in everyday life, I share YES Institute’s passion for transparency in science and communication as vital tools for the future of education.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Act Highlights YES Institute with 'Generation MTV'

Act, an MTV blog fusing pop culture with the socially conscious, published three different articles exploring the work of YES Institute. Last week, in light of New Jersey Public Schools recent anti-bullying legislation, Act journalist Caroline Walker included a quote from YES Institute Executive Director Rachel Sottile, stating:

"Unfortunately, once we have a law, people think the job is done. Laws are the last ditch stop-gap; when all else fails, we turn to them. Real change happens when people who are knowingly or unwittingly participating in unsafe conditions change their hearts, minds and ultimately their actions."

Rachel Sottile, MS.
Two days later, Act posted a feature article about the importance of the work of YES Institute, including a quote from co-founder Martha Fugate on bullying prevention:

"Give people the tools to handle the situation and deal with it, not feel helpless and powerless about how they feel now...mirroring the fear that they pick up in the culture."

This week, Act also published an interview with YES Institute volunteer speaker Evan, a transgender male youth who started his transition in his Junior year of high school. When asked how his grandmother was able to turn from “adversary” to “ally”, Evan said:                             
“During a gender course at YES, one of the participants told my [grandmother] how she saw me not only as male, but naturally having that "male presence." My grandma, who is like a mother to me, began to cry. She said she felt the exact same way, but she couldn't bear the thought of having to lose [her] little girl... I was able to hold her and cry with her as she told me all the things she had been feeling about it.”

Later he stated: “I strongly believe that community education is the best way to help reduce and eventually eliminate teen suicide surrounding these topics, and to help stop the hate and ignorance surrounding it.”

Check out all the MTV Act articles about YES Institute by clicking on the first post, the second feature article about the work of YES Institute, or the third article about YES Institute volunteer speaker Evan.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Summer of Service: YES Institute’s Internship Program

by Adrian Fernandez-Morrell

YES Institute has an uncanny ability to draw people to the organization. There are many people who become part of the YES community and freely volunteer their time because they believe in the mission, and none are more passionate than the YES Institute interns.

Summer interns Mariana, Adrian, and Christopher hard at work!

I am proud to be on the YES Institute team of summer interns. We enter through the white double-doors two or three times a week, ready to take on whatever task is at hand. We are challenged, motivated, and empowered to be responsible for various jobs.  We are Christopher Morello, Mariana Ochoa, and myself, Adrian Fernandez-Morrell.

I sat down with our team to ask them about their reasons for choosing YES for their internships. Christopher, from Miami Palmetto Senior High, replied, “I admire how YES educates the community rather than being extreme and judgmental. I am really inspired by the mission and this approach to making a difference.” Christopher’s answer proved to be the consensus among all the interns.

Mariana shared, “My favorite moments are watching a course participant really letting the course sink in. It is amazing how much of an impact these courses have on people, and how every person gets different things out of the education. Witnessing these breakthroughs is always powerful for me.”

Chris enjoys “every staff meeting and lunch, because I feel so welcomed and a part of the team when we all get together. I also like how everyone shares and really listens.” In agreement with Christopher, I interject about the time the gentleman traveled from México to Miami to learn more about the work of YES. And the day we all arrived for Intern Orientation. And then there was the presentation at the Non-Violence Project USA that was really great, and the... well, you get the idea.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to be a part of YES Institute. We appreciate all we have learned, particularly what we discovered in Communication Solutions™. Mariana shares, “ I got so many insights. I can’t help but share with my family and friends. I now want all of the people in my life to come to YES and take these courses.”