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!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Father’s Love

By Umut Dursun, Community Liaison 

Umut addressing University of Miami students. 

My resolve to transition from female to male was unbreakable; but the actual transition was not an easy one...

For as long as I can remember, I have known myself to be male, but I lacked the concept to make sense of this for myself. When I did finally figure out who I was, I experienced a tremendous sense of relief. I could finally be comfortable in my own skin. But no one lives on an island. Soon enough, I had to confront the reality that I’d have to tell every single person in my life about my gender which entails using a different pronoun and a whole new social script. My mind was swamped with questions: “Will I lose my family? Who could possibly love me? Is it worth it?” I was terrified of losing the people I felt closest to in this world. But once I finally knew who I was, a 25 year long struggle, I couldn’t hide from myself – or others – for even one more day.

Having no clue how my Dad would react, I braced myself for the worst. After obsessing in my mind over and over how the conversation might go, I was convinced that my father would disown me. He is Turkish and Muslim. I equated his identity as an automatic death sentence for our relationship. “Baba…I need to tell you something…I’m a guy.” Silence. Then, “What do you mean, ‘you’re a guy’?” I said, “Well, I’m not a girl. I’ve never felt like one. It took me a long time to figure out why I was unhappy, and it’s because I’m not a girl. I’m a guy.” More silence. “Are you sure?... What does this mean?...This is just a phase.” Although my dad didn’t understand how I was feeling, or why I needed to transition, he made the single most important fact clear – he loves me unconditionally.

I began my gender transition in August of 2010. My family has remained by my side throughout this journey, but my dad and I haven’t really talked He has never heard me tell of looking in the mirror, and seeing nothing but emptiness in the reflection. Someone I didn’t know was always looking back at me. I didn’t share with him the torment of feeling incomplete and searching for a sense of belonging. My wanting to be seen as a man, as his son, was the huge elephant in the room we could never manage to discuss. People knew he had two daughters, so there was always this awkward pause when he introduced me as “his child.”

My dad recently visited Miami and I invited him to accompany me to a YES Institute dialogue at the University of Miami. He didn’t have a clue what he agreed to, but being the supportive father he is, he joined me anyway. This was the first time my dad had ever heard firsthand the real truth of my experience.

When I spoke during the dialogue, he listened intently, and I could tell he was processing information that was very foreign to him. Afterwards, I fielded questions from the audience as my dad quietly listened from the back of the room. Before we wrapped up for the day, my dad was invited to share what the experience was like for him. He responded only noting a curiosity about different cultural practices of gender. However, above all, he made it clear that although he doesn't understand, he is thirsty for knowledge.

Though I was originally scared of my dad’s reaction, our relationship has remained intact. There are slip-ups when he says ‘she,’ but I know it isn’t meant with malice. His willingness to listen as he tries to learn has allowed me to hear him differently. When he says “my child,” he says so with love.

Umut and his father at University of Miami.