amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Meet the 2015 amfAR HIV Scholars

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Posted by Lucile Scott, April 29, 2015

For the third consecutive year, the GMT Initiative has teamed up with the Center for LGBT Health Research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health to offer scholarships to four researchers from low- or middle-income countries as part of the amfAR HIV Scholars program. The program aims to strengthen responses to HIV by offering leading GMT community-based researchers five months of graduate-level study on LGBT health research, study design, and grant writing.

“The strategies that work best for addressing HIV are those developed by community-based scholars and activists, and they have to have solid research skills and data or their brilliant strategies won’t get funding,” says Dr. Ron Stall, chair of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at Pitt Public Health, who oversees the program. “The scholars are local heroes often doing this work at great risk to themselves, and we invest in them to help them get their programs off the ground.”

By the end of their stay, the scholars will have not only sharpened their research skills, but also drafted a proposal to investigate culturally appropriate strategies for improving HIV services for GMT individuals in their countries. Earlier this month, they travelled to New York City to present their proposals to amfAR’s staff for possible funding. Watch them discuss their work and the HIV Scholars program in the video above.

meet the scholars

The 2015 amfAR HIV Scholars (left to right): Sheryar Kazi associated with the Naz Male Health Alliance, Pakistan; Liesl Theron, a consultant supported by Gender DynamiX, South Africa; Erika Castellanos from the Collaborative Network of Persons Living with HIV (C-NET+), Belize; and Weibin Cheng from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and

Research Collaboration in Rwanda and Burundi

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Posted by Kent Klindera, April 13, 2015

LGBTI activists gather at Centre Remuruka, an LGBTI advocacy group and community center in Bujumbura, Burundi.

I recently returned from a research preparedness meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, where 25 LGBTI activists and HIV researchers from Rwanda and Burundi came together to discuss research design, questions, and priorities for health and human rights research among GMT individuals in the region. Too often, research performed among LGBTI populations is developed by researchers only. While grounded in science, they often neglect the role community should be playing in designing such studies, only seeking community involvement in the recruitment of research subjects. Due to this the lack of participation, opportunities are often lost to connect the research results with the communities’ advocacy efforts—a link that could result in a more effective HIV response among GMT populations.  

To bridge this divide, amfAR has been working with The Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to connect more researchers with LGBTI community activists and vice versa. In 2011, we collectively developed a research guide called Protect, Respect, Fulfill, which offers concrete actions to overcome the gap between researchers and community leaders. We are currently adding new case studies and action checklists to the document and plan to release the updated guidance later this year. 

amfAR and IAVI have also been organizing meetings, like the one in Kigali, in several countries. Last year, we hosted a series of meetings in Kenya that resulted in the formation of a formalized LGBTI research network of both researchers and activists called the G10 that is now working to set research priorities and design studies in Kenya. This year, we have held meetings in Zambia and Rwanda and plan to support similar meetings in Belize, Paraguay, South Africa, and Tajikistan.

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Members of GMT Initiative grantee partner MOLI (Mouvement pour les Libertés Individuelles) at the organization’s offices in Bujumbura, Burundi  

One of the widest gaps between researchers and the LGBTI activists’ agendas is the fact that the activists represent a community whose ‘lived reality’ is more than just being an HIV disease vector. LGBTI people struggle with societal stigma and discrimination. Especially when living openly as LGBTI, this stigma and discrimination make it very challenging for them to receive a quality education, secure paid employment, maintain familial and romantic relationships, and access quality healthcare. However, from the HIV researchers’ perspective, it is only the health aspect that is important.

LGBTI activists often tune out if they think HIV researchers do not see them in the context of their lives, and I’ve heard them complain that the researchers seem not to care about the community. Similarly, I’ve heard researchers complain that LGBTI activists are not well organized and have unrealistic expectations. In Kigali, I was impressed at the sense of mutual admiration that the activists and researchers had for each other. As I have witnessed at every research preparedness meeting we’ve held, when both parties were brought together, camaraderie was shared, along with mutual understanding and trust.

The meetings also reveal how listening to activists is essential to designing an effective study. For example, in Kigali we discussed how using the word ‘recruit’ can be problematic and stigmatizing when performing research within LGBTI communities, as society accuses LGBTI leaders of ‘recruiting’ others into their ‘lifestyle.’ It was therefore agreed that saying ‘enroll’ or ‘engage’ research participants would be much more appropriate.

I was impressed by how truly engaged the attending activists were. I watched as they began to understand the power that solid research data can offer their advocacy efforts and the impact the community could have on shaping a future research agenda for LGBTI individuals in their area through collaboration with researchers. I was also impressed that the HIV researchers began to understand that HIV is not the most important concern of LGBTI leaders, but that the stigma and discrimination that permeate society and LGBTI individuals’ daily lives takes precedence.    

Much of the struggle we have around the HIV response among key populations is because, too often, their humanity is somehow diminished.  This may be the consequence of the irrational fear that causes societal homophobia and transphobia, or of seeing community members as data points, not vital voices in the research process. We need more gatherings and processes like this where everyone’s humanity shines through.