Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Authenticity, Being and Belonging: Transforming Self and Community

Dear YES Institute, the following talk I delivered as a community activist and candidate for New York City Council on October 19, 2011. It was addressed to representatives of major corporations that offer the most comprehensive benefits to people of all genders and orientations. - Mel Wymore 

Mel Wymore.
I was asked to speak tonight because of my vast experience. When I was born, the doctor proclaimed me female and gave me an "F". Shortly thereafter, I began to "Q". Eventually, and for a number of years, I identified as "L". After no small amount of struggle, I found "T". And recently, I earned an "M" from the Department of Motor Vehicles. I know, I’m missing the "G", but believe me, at this point, I’m not ruling it out.

I have a close friend (and ally) who calls us "the giblets," (GLBTQs). It’s kind of funny, but she makes a rather stirring point. Sometimes we work so hard to identify ourselves, we end up in a box more isolating than where we started. I’m not going to talk about the labels we often confuse and misuse; I’m going to talk about what it means to be and to belong.

First, I want to begin by thanking all of you for being here, for taking the time on a Wednesday night to acknowledge your commitment to justice and equality in the workplace. You are leaders in industry who have fought and won righteous battles. You have my admiration and also my deep gratitude.

When I was a baby tomboy, my parents didn’t tell me anything was wrong. In fact, they didn’t really tell me I was a girl. Mrs. Parker did that. On my first day of pre-school, she insisted that I go play dolls with the other girls (blech!) while the “boys” frolicked outside in the mud. I remember watching them through the window longingly, achingly.

But the message was clear. I would have to learn how to “be” a girl... So I dropped out of pre-school. Thanks to understanding parents, I got a glorious extra year without Mrs. Parker, or Mrs. Peacock, or Mrs. DeVault, or Susy Sanderson, the smartest, sparkliest, prettiest girly girl in school. But I never shook the feeling that I just didn’t belong.

In our culture, belonging is a binary proposition. One is either black or white, masculine or feminine, straight or gay, liberal or conservative. Yes, there is a vast middle ground, and an infinite number of clubs to join, but belonging seems to be given more by what we are not by who we are. If you want to belong to the norm, simply disavow that you are different. Just bury it.

By middle school, I had learned to fit in. On a minimum acceptable number of days (one was always photo day), I sacrificed my striped pants and matching polo shirt for a plaid dress. Life became largely a matter of appearance, performance, and compromise. Fitting in was all that mattered. I appeared to be a happy camper, and I actually believed it myself.

When we strive to belong to any group, we often park a part of ourselves at the door like an inconvenient younger sibling. Rather than risk exclusion, we turn our backs on what makes us whole and complete, sometimes without even noticing.

Strangely, between the ages of 16 and 24, I had 10 car accidents and totaled 6 cars. They were all blindsides. I was so far removed from myself, I thought there was a problem with my peripheral vision. The notion that I was engaged in reckless, death-wish­-type driving never crossed my mind. I went to driving school, moved from Arizona to New York, married a successful banker, spawned two beautiful kids, and became an entrepreneur and PTA mom. I was a paragon of fitting in, living out the American Dream.

It wasn’t until I was 35, and mysteriously depressed, that I began experiencing another series of blindsides. This time, they came from the inside out, like a chick emerging from its egg one crack at a time. When I finally sprung the shell, my perfect life crumbled around me. That’s when my real journey began.

As a newly hatched lesbian mom, I challenged myself to prize authenticity over social agreement. It was not easy. I could reliably count on people asking why I would jeopardize the well-­being of my children for the sake of my own self-­indulgent self-expression. I became acutely aware of how afraid we are, all of us, of being other, of showing ourselves. It’s time to break the chain.

I came out a second time 3 years ago. We tend to confuse sexual orientation with gender identity. As it turned out for me, same sex relationships only exacerbated the deep discomfort I had always felt with my body. So I began to transition. This time, however, I went big. I literally moved physically across the gender spectrum in front of the world, narrating along the way, not to embellish my own story, but as an invitation for everyone to break through their own barriers to full self-­expression.

Ernst & Young building, Times Square.
For this same reason, I’d like to speak to you as agents of change in your respective institutions. It’s imperative to have policies that safeguard all of us from discrimination. But equal benefits and diversity recruitment will not change the culture that give rise to inequity. Our challenge is to create an alternative future, one in which everyone feels invested in and cared for by the whole of their communities. I invite you to join me in three specific quests:

1. Challenge the mental models that shape our world. 
From the get-go, we are born into a paradigm that separates us. What’s most often the first question asked of any expecting mother? ["Is it a boy or girl?"] As we grow up, we continue collecting and identifying the two-­sided coins of life and how they define us: are we smart vs. “social,” rich vs. poor, fast or slow? Our default frame of reference is almost always us vs. them. The simple, conscious act of replacing our jar of two-­sided coins with a jar of multicolored marbles will make room for new conversations, engage who we actually are, and ultimately change the world.

2. Build authentic and inclusive community.
Community is the antidote to the isolation and disconnection we all increasingly feel. Inclusive community does not happen by accident, it happens by design. First, honor and encourage authentic interactions. Occasionally, break from explanations, analysis, or goals to ask ambiguous questions that encourage engagement and self-expression, questions like:
• What possibility can you proclaim for our company that would have the power to inspire you?
• What gifts or perspectives do you still hold in exile?
• What gratitude do you feel that has yet gone unexpressed?

Make sure open answers carry no cost. Safe space is essential. Form small groups, comprised of people across departments and organizational layers, focused on specific projects that serve the well-­being of the whole. Start by developing a set of principles that reflect the deep commitments of the group, principles like freedom, equality, unity, or transparency. Allow them to shape and motivate on-­going discussion.

George Washington bridge, NYC.
Small, cross-­disciplinary groups are the unit of organizational transformation. They create what are called “bridging” relationships that would not happen otherwise. These are distinct from bonding relationships, which occur naturally among colleagues. Invest in small group projects over big events or diversity trainings. They produce some important benefits, but they don’t transform communities.

Shift the context of discussion: rather than building community defined by its problems, focus on building community defined by its possibilities. You will be amazed by how the conversations change.

Finally, leave no person behind. Invite everyone to participate, observe, or not. Make sure there’s no cost to opting out.

3. Expand your accountability. 
Engage everyone in their ownership of the whole, not only within your institution, but in the immediate community around you. So often we ask our corporations to give charity to lands far away, to feed the poor in Bangladesh or cure the ill in the Congo. These are great causes, but shifting our systems of association at home will bring far more to the world. The us/them paradigm disappears through interpersonal connections, not by shipping money overseas.

These all sound like simple suggestions, but they are not easy. Conventional wisdom will resist “touchy feely” engagements. It will require personal risk, courage, and perseverance to make it happen. But it will be worth the effort. I guarantee it will empower your employees, enliven your company, and impact all three of your bottom lines: people, planet, and profit.

Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

School Therapists Requesting Education and Training on Gender and Orientation

Ever hear of the term "E/BD"?  Emotional/Behavioral Disorder is a diagnosis or label applied to students who exhibit acting out behaviors or mood imbalances that impact their ability to learn, relate and perform in the classroom. Most school districts in the US and Canada have specialized programs with dedicated teachers and counselors to address the needs of these students.

Ms. Nadyne Floyd-Grubbs, Chairperson for Miami-Dade County Public Schools E/BD Clinical Services, noticed continuing education requests on gender transitioning, orientation and student well-being on a recent team survey. She contacted YES Institute, and this November we conducted a two-hour workshop with 60 social workers, art therapists and counselors from the E/BD program.

Ms. Nadyne Floyd-Grubbs, second from the left, with MDCPS E/BD counseling team members. 

Students dealing with emotional and behavioral challenges can also simultaneously be struggling with questions surrounding gender and orientation. Given the prevalent 'anti-gay' school bullying climate that many students endure, some E/BD students are more sensitive and therefore more affected by these types of slurs and harassment. A popular E/BD blog featured a resource post for parents and families earlier this year for students confronting emotional well-being and gender and orientation concerns.

"The personal experiences were very powerful. It shows us how this topic needs to be handled with sensitivity. It is our responsibility to be knowledgeable about gender and transgender." –E/BD Counselor 

At the workshop, Barbara Byrne, LCSW, shared about several cases on gender and orientation she manages in her private practice, and highlighted key clinical strategies when working with schools and parents. We also provided counselors with community resource and referrals in addition to educational courses available to parents, teachers and therapists with YES Institute.

"This session was extremely important. I feel better equipped to assist young adults with orientation." –E/BD Counselor 

Over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January 2012, YES Institute will be hosting our annual winter education weekend, "Communicating Powerfully & ReVisioning Gender," conducting five days of the most popular courses at YES Institute. To register for the entire event, or attend one of the courses offered in the series, please contact us today. CE units and Master Plan Points are available for licensed Florida professionals.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Miami-Dade College Faculty Broadens Awareness and Education on Gender

Out of 130 presentation engagements conducted by the YES Institute's Speakers Bureau this year, fourteen dialogues were requested by professors from Miami-Dade College. Psychology, sociology, and medical teachers, including faculty from Hialeah, Homestead, Kendall, Medical and North campuses, have all hosted YES Institute.

Instructors who invite YES Institute to their class are providing students with access to the latest research, critical thinking, and first-hand life experiences on gender and orientation, greatly enhancing 'book learning'. Engaging with YES Institute speakers also has a profound impact, not only for students self-knowledge and awareness, but also how they relate to friends and their families on these topics.

Sky Guilbaud engaging with MDC North campus students. 

165 students at Miami-Dade North campus attended a talk today exploring the topics of gender and orientation in our culture. Students reflected:

"I learned the value of supporting someone, no matter what their orientation. Supporting them might mean the difference between a suicide attempt or not." 
"Gender transitioning is not as creepy as I thought. I didn't know how I would react if someone around me transitioned, but after being here with Sky, I realized it would have no affect on me."  
"Awesome presentation, great knowledge. I now see an approach to talk to my own children about this." 

Caro, a guest speaker with YES Institute, addressing students at Miami-Dade Kendall. 

A student from Miami-Dade Kendall also shared about the impact of a YES Institute presentation this morning:
"Before this presentation, I always call my friends 'queer faggots', basically being a bully. I was blind to the harm I caused to my friend that did come out as gay. The YES dialogue taught me that my actions affect people deeply." 
If you would like to invite YES Institute facilitators and speakers to present to your South Florida university class, please contact us today. Upcoming engagements that are currently scheduled are available on our website calendar.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Health Care Centers Leading the Way

by Joseph Zolobczuk

75% of medical schools surveyed in the United States and Canada rated themselves "fair," "poor," or "very poor" on the integration of gender and orientation content in undergraduate medical school training, according to a November 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Of 132 medical schools in the JAMA report, 33% devoted no clinical training hours to covering the particular health concerns of patients who identify as gay or transgender, as reported in a recent US News & Word Report article. The average time medical schools who integrate topics is about 5 hours of instruction, however the JAMA report found, "the quantity, content covered, and perceived quality of instruction varied substantially." This lack of awareness and education could be contributing to Lambda Legal's survey findings that 56% of respondents experienced discrimination based on gender and orientation in US health care.

Tori G. addressing the Physician Assistants at Miami-Dade College

In South Florida, two notable health centers who are taking steps to increase awareness and education include Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital (JDCH) Community Youth Services at Memorial, and Miami-Dade College (MDC) Physician Assistant Program. 

Community Youth Services (CYS) has distinguished itself as a quality provider of youth and family prevention, early intervention, and substance abuse outpatient services, serving thousands of Broward residents each year. In October, YES Institute provided training to 50 CYS social workers in a two-hour workshop and open floor dialogue with three guest speakers. Some of the participants shared:  
“I have learned that in order to prevent suicide and ensure healthy development there has to be proper communication. The YES dialogue was very informative and I was moved by the stories of people who really shared their experience.” –CYS participant 
“It helped me understand others' experiences and cultural perspectives. The information was useful because of the population I work with. There are a lot of misconceptions and today's training cleared many of these for me.” –CYS participant 
JDCH Department of Pediatric Endocrinology hosted a YES Institute presentation earlier this summer at Memorial Regional Hospital.

Joseph Zolobczuk(center) and Sky Guilbaud with social workers at Community Youth Services

MDC's Physician Assistant Program invites YES Institute to provide a 1½ hour presentations on orientation, gender transitioning, and medical management of intersex births for each new cohort of medical students for the past several years. Students from the Fall 2011 cohort remarked,
"This is very important information for life and my profession." –MDC PA student 
"Asking if a patient prefers to be called a name other than listed could have huge benefits in care/treatment." –MDC PA student
YES Institute courses are accredited for continuing education by the Florida Board of Nursing and Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling [BAP #50-1652] on gender and orientation topics. The January 2012 Winter Education Weekend is an ideal opportunity participate in all of the primary YES Institue communication and education courses, conducted Friday through Tuesday, January 13–17, 2012, at the YES Institute offices in Miami, Florida.

If you would like to schedule an introductory presentation or training workshop at your health center or facility, please call YES Institute at 305-663-7195 or 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Unlearning Masculinity

by Adrian Fernandez-Morrell

As a child in elementary school, I was blissfully unaware that indoctrination into my “correct” gender role was already well on its way. My father, who took on the role of teacher, was determined to transform me into the same image of a “real man” he was given by his father - one of toughness, force, and stoicism. 

A “real man” would strike anyone in the mouth for the slightest sign of disrespect. “Punch ‘em” was my father’s go-to advice whenever I had a problem with someone. “When I was your age,” he explained, “and some kid did that to me, I gave them a bloody nose. You better believe he never messed with me again.” 

Adrian (right) at YES Institute's Masculinity Distinguished course.

I continued to play, oblivious to the meanings the world attached to my actions. I bear-hugged my best friends, because they were my best friends. One time, I walked an imaginary runway in my mother’s high heels to which she said, “You’re really good at walking in those. Just don’t let your father ever see you wearing them.” I put on my grandmother’s clip-on earrings and was scolded by my father, “Take those off! Ladies wear earrings.” The lessons seemed never ending: Don’t be a fairy, don’t be a sissy, don’t be a little girl, suck it up, be a man, stop whining. “My father used to hit me, and you’d never see me cry," my father would say. According to my father, I was going about the business of manhood all wrong. 

Despite my resistance, the “boys don’t do that” lessons of my childhood began to take root. I wanted to be a man. My father was strong, so I wanted to be strong. I took pride in his strength, punching him in the stomach (only with his permission) to see how his mighty abdomen could absorb the blow, but also to see if I had become strong enough to inflict some degree of pain. 

In college, my father felt it necessary to continue my tutorials to prepare me for the real world. On one of his visits, he noticed a thin layer of pink nail polish on a few of my fingers. His patience had already been exhausted, and a lecture ensued. He swiftly procured nail polish remover, took my hand, and gruffly removed the paint himself. “Do you walk around in public like that? What do people think when they see that? I’ll tell you what I’d think. I’d think that person’s a gay.” 

This was not a new phenomenon. I was called gay frequently growing up. Much to my chagrin, quite a few acquaintances called me by the unwarranted sobriquet, “Gaydrian.” This was a recycled pestering used on any and every victim - I wasn’t bullied or ridiculed, because people actually thought I was gay; it was just the insult of choice. Not every kid sees it this way. For kids like Carl Joseph Walker Hoover and Jamey Rodemeyer, relentless bullying was a death blow.

Even as an adult, people still assume I’m gay. I don’t think I exhibit characteristics that would make others think this of me, and yet, it happens. After taking Masculinity Distinguished, I see how all of those lessons about masculinity my father tried so hard to bestow are at the root of it all. I’m still processing the impact of this course, but I know that I left YES Institute that day feeling lighter, freer. I get it. 

Brittney McCabe and Joseph Zolobczuk (right) in November's Masculinity Distinguished course.

We invite you to Masculinity Distinguished to look beyond what is assumed and examine the constraints and expectations for the illusive "ideal male". YES Institute begins a fresh inquiry into the meanings of relating in a polarized gender equation. Register for the Saturday, February 25, 2012 class with Brittney McCabe, by calling 305 663-7195.