Tayson Defas had difficulty growing up in Ecuador where it wasn't easy for him to find his identity as an LGBT youth.
"I was born here, but I was raised there. And in Ecuador, the LGBT community is not very strong. It's even ridiculed on TV, so you can understand how I felt when I was trying to come out," he said. "At the time, I had no idea what the gay community was. I had no connection. I had no idea how to talk to gay people. I didn’t even know how other gay people looked like -- that's how much of a problem I had."
He came back to the U.S. when he was 19. That's when he discovered the Rainbow Circle, a support group established in 1981 to help alleviate some of the problems that affect LGBT youth.
The first-ever Rainbow Circle meeting was held by Dr. Marilyn Volker, a sexologist, at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus. The meetings were intended to provide LGBT youth with a safe place to ask questions pertaining to their sexuality, share stories and reach out for support without the fear of being ridiculed.
Because the meetings attained such success, they were incorporated into nonprofit organization Pridelines Youth Services in 1996. Although 33 years have passed since the first meeting, the topics are still the same today: relationships, safe sex, coming out, depression and even suicide.
And instead of meeting in a classroom at a college, the Rainbow Circle meetings are now held at 6 p.m. on Mondays at Prideline's drop-in center in Miami Shores and on Tuesdays at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.
Defas, now 26, is one of the leaders of the Cutler Bay meetings. And still to this day, he recalls the important role that the first meetings had on his life.
"There were other gay people like me who were open to discuss their lives, their perspective as gay men, women -- even transgender people. And that really gave me a sense of peace that I could make gay friends without the pressure of [dating] them or sex," Defas said.
Now, he says, Tuesdays are his favorite day of the week.
"I like how they want to come, and I want them to feel that they have someone to look up to, someone that will be there for them," he said.
One of Defas' meeting attendees is Angel, 18, who didn't want us to use his real name because his parents don't know that he comes to the meetings.
Angel joined the Rainbow Circle about five months ago because was confused about his sexuality.
"One of the members, named Teddy, gave a presentation about sexuality because at that time I was still thinking about what I am -- if I’m gay or straight or whatever. And then once we started learning more about what LGBTQ is, that’s when I finally just learned what I really am," Angel said.
He now identifies as pan-romantic. He says it means being first emotionally attracted to someone -- regardless of the gender -- and then forming a sexual connection.
Not only was Angel confused about himself before he came to the Rainbow Circle, but he says he was also very shy.
"I used to be really antisocial and self-reserved. But then slowly, I’ve kinda learned to be more open towards people and wanting to speak to them," he said.
Jonathan Hackney, 39, the second leader of the Tuesday meetings, has witnessed that change in Angel.
"Angel used to come to the group very shy, very introverted. And through our support, you know, just hanging out and getting to know him, he’s become much more of a social person, not only with the group, but also in general," he said.
Although Hackney is now out and in a happy relationship, he says it wasn't always like this for him -- he didn't come out until he was 26.
He says it took him that long to come out because his father came out to his mother after 27 years of marriage.
"I just saw how much it devastated [my mother], and I just didn’t want to put her through that again," he said.
Like Hackney, Victor Diaz-Herman, the executive director of Pridelines Youth Services, didn't come out until he was 26 -- but for an entirely different reason.
"Growing up, I had two moms. I struggled with coming out. I wasn’t sure if the thoughts I was having were thoughts that were, for a lack of a better word, normal. Also, I didn’t want people to think that my parents made me gay," said Diaz-Herman.
Both Hackney and Diaz-Herman say that if they would have come to the Rainbow Circle meetings growing up, their coming out experience would have been entirely different.
"You’re always in denial, I think, growing up and being gay. And once I realized who I was... I’ve become the happiest I’ve ever been," Hackney said.
The Rainbow Circle organizers would like to be able to help more young people, like Angel, feel happier. On some nights, just a few people show up for the meetings.
And although the organizers know there are online forums available to help LGBT youth in these predicaments, they think being able to sit next to someone who's going through the same experience goes a long way.
Angel says the Rainbow Circle has helped him turn away from his past and onto a brighter future.
"This place, I guess, kind of helped me, like, come out and, like, deal with my emotions," Angel said. "And now, I guess, I’m a lot more happier."