I recently travelled to Berea, Ohio to attend the Conference on Current Issues in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Health Research at Baldwin Wallace University. The conference featured panelists and participants from the United States and abroad and focused on data collection, under-researched populations, and interventions to address health disparities in LGBT communities. Speaker Dr. Eli Coleman, Director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, began the conference with a timeline of LGBT research and acknowledged the various researchers and community members who laid the foundation for current innovations in the field. Kellan Baker of the LGBTI Research and Communications Project at American Progress in Washington, D.C., discussed the future of LGBTI research in our current political climate and how research advances are being translated into meaningful policy changes, including expanding coverage for trans-specific health care. Pushing back against the opinion that equal marriage rights signal the final achievement for LGBT communities, Baker argued that these victories represent decades of perseverance that will continue until complete LGBT equity is achieved.
A series of speakers presented improved strategies for collecting sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex data at the population level. Jody Herman of the Williams Institute discussed the importance of viewing sexual orientation as a combination of sexual attraction, behavior and identity and crafting questions that capture the complexity of these identifiers. An important issue discussed throughout these presentations was how to frame survey questions using appropriate terminology (i.e. cisgender, transgender) without confusing respondents who were unfamiliar with these classifications. Many panelists suggested that while transgender participants were accustomed to identifying as transgender, many cisgender participants were unfamiliar with identifying as cisgender, and were often confused by gender identity questions with this language. Research by the Fenway Institute and Center for American Progress concluded that the two-step gender identity question most effectively captured this data without confusing cisgender-identified survey respondents (Click here for more information on these findings).
Bringing attention to the most under-researched population under the LGBTI umbrella, DSD (Differences of Sex Development–formerly referred to as Intersex) activist Karen Walsh recounted her personal journey toward DSD advocacy. Walsh discussed her work in support of Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), an organization that advocates for the civil rights of children born with variations of reproductive or sexual anatomy, and called for more research on the long-term health outcomes and gender/sexual identity of individuals with DSD (Click here for more information about DSD activism, visit).
The first day of the conference concluded with a remarkable presentation by Dr. Erin Wilson on her longitudinal research on trans-female/trans-feminine/gender-queer youth in the San Francisco Bay Area. Focusing primarily on reducing HIV risk among this population, Dr. Wilson’s team has conducted three health behavior surveys over the course of a year, provided free and confidential HIV testing, and established a strong social media presence and community for study participants. Future publications will detail their findings and provide the foundation for more research and interventions to improve health outcomes for transgender individuals. (More information about Dr. Wilson’s work can be found here).
Though the conference succeeded in integrating information from various frameworks within LGBTI research, there was a conspicuous underrepresentation of people of color among panelists and participants. Several panelists mentioned recent increases in HIV transmission among men who have sex with men (MSM), but very few brought attention to the disproportionate burden carried by Black and Latino MSM. Historical timelines of LGBTI research noticeably understated the contributions of activists and researchers of color and failed to mention significant literary works like the Combahee River Collective Statement and the courageous efforts of Black and Latino activists during the Stonewall Riots. Many of these critiques were raised by audience members in short discussions sections, but dialogue was often limited due to time constraints. Nonetheless, these abbreviated discussions on race, privilege and the power dynamics of academic-community partnerships highlighted the need for concerted efforts to achieve parity for all individuals within LGBTI communities.