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).

Cape Town, South Africa: Transgender Transformations

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Posted by Kent Klindera, May 9, 2011


I’ve been visiting with Gender Dynamix, a new MSM Initiative grantee based in a low-income neighborhood outside Cape Town. Gender Dynamix is Africa’s first formal transgender-focused nonprofit organization, and amfAR is supporting a research study they are conducting on the health and human rights needs of transgender individuals. Currently, very little data exist documenting specific HIV-related risk factors facing transgender people. The great news is that in addition to amfAR’s funding, a South African donor has made a significant contribution to Gender Dynamix’s outreach work, allowing them to expand the study’s reach into at least three more provinces.

Today I heard of a project Gender Dynamix calls “T-junction” in which transgender people gather to socialize once a month in a private room above a restaurant. They often attend a formal support group sponsored by another nonprofit and then come to T-junction to unwind. Many participants present as their biological gender during their working hours but bring a change of clothing (to dress as their preferred gender) for the social gathering. These gatherings are unheard of in Africa, where transgender identities are just starting to be recognized. Anthropologists and historians have documented transgender people and same-sex behavior in past African cultures (there are cave drawings depicting both), but colonial influences have criminalized and shamed these identities. 

Gender Dynamix is being supported by another U.S.-based donor to conduct exchanges and build the capacity of nascent transgender organization in other African countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia, and even Uganda. All of these groups are amazing and I’m proud to be a part of history— assisting courageous organizations find freedom.

Swaziland: Being the Change for MSM

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Posted by Kent Klindera, May 4, 2011

I am visiting Swaziland and last night I had a wonderful conversation with three 20-something gay men—an immigration official, a nurse, and a school teacher. Into the wee hours, over a little whiskey, we talked of their disdain for closet doors (one had recently been confronted by his parents and he did not lie); of their challenges in finding true love; male circumcision; and of their dreams of marrying a man and starting a family (one talked of mixing his partner’s sperm with his to use with a surrogate mother). They also were pretty scared of HIV/AIDS and talked about how they “almost” always used condoms, but admitted not all their gay male friends feel at risk—this in a country where more than 25 percent of the population has HIV, the highest prevalence rate in the world.

Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world yet its government denies the existence of MSM

 No research has been done here on HIV among MSM. Sadly, the government denies the existence of MSM and has not invested any funding in MSM-specific HIV programming.  The good news is that the U.S. government is examining how to conduct a study on MSM and HIV, which would prove the existence of gay men and shine a light on risk factors associated with HIV. amfAR’s MSM Initiative is currently supporting such a study in Zambia as well as others in Jamaica, Peru, and South Africa.  

What I saw in Swaziland was idealism and courage. Three young men who recognize that they are “the change” (as Gandhi said: “be the change”) and that they can help make Swaziland better for younger gay and lesbian people. The teacher, a masculine-looking guy, talked of how he is quick to stop school children from bullying other kids who are displaying “alternative gender norms,” as well as students who may be transgender and in the process of realizing their identities. 

In a country with very few freedoms (Swaziland is the last governing monarchy in Africa), it was great to be a part of a discussion of young men about to break free!