March 31, 2014
Last week in Nairobi, Kenya, amfAR hosted a meeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community activists, in partnership with the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). For a day and a half, we debated past, current, and future research being conducted on LGBT issues and HIV in Kenya, with the aim of developing a strategic LGBT research agenda for the future. Although it was quite a successful meeting, what was most troubling to me was hearing about past experiences the activists had working with outside researchers.
Repeatedly, the community activists talked about academics "coming in" to work with the communities and then "going out" with their data to analyze, publish, and disseminate with little regard for the community they had investigated. One activist talked about how so many research studies had been conducted in his community, each assessing the needs or sexual behavior of the LGBT community, yet so little impact had actually come from the data. The activists said that community members were tired of talking to researchers about their needs, when no new programming to actually meet those needs arises.
At the meeting we discussed how to change that troubling paradigm by involving the community in study design and implementation. At the end, a core group of LGBT community activists formed a plan to help GALCK, IAVI, and amfAR both engage researchers in a research agenda focusing on the issues the community thinks are the most pressing, and also raise support for programming that addresses the real needs documented by that research. Some of the questions comprising that new agenda include:
For the first time, the discussions at this meeting were putting the activists in the driver's seat to define their own research agenda, and what was interesting to me was how real and honest the discussion was They talked frankly about their communities' needs, which primarily revolved around the pervasive homophobia and transphobia in society that inhibit their lives. Many recognized how internalized homophobia -- the internalized shame associated with same sex attraction -- helped fuel the external homophobia witnessed by all participants because when one is ashamed of oneself, it is very difficult to see the need to assist others.
In June, we will be hosting another meeting in Kenya. This time, researchers, community colleagues, and donors will meet to take this new research agenda forward and to develop strategies to link funding and programs for the LGBT community in Kenya to this agenda.