“We ourselves are responsible for our health because there is no one to help us.” These words from a Hijra in my 2018 Fulbright Fellowship study hit home. The vulnerabilities, isolation and stigmatization that these individuals were sharing with me struck a cord- it was so similar to the experiences of others I had interviews in other contexts. It solidified my sense of responsibility to address these social determinant level concerns to improve health outcomes for sexual and gender diverse minorities through rigorous research and action science.
This motivation to engage in global health research with gender diverse populations started in 2017 when I was chosen from a large number of students to be part of the first India study abroad program hosted by the psychology department at Florida International University. While learning about myself and the goals I wanted to enrich; I had the opportunity to create an honors thesis project with Dr. Purnima Madhivanan from the Public Health Department, Dr. Dionne Stephens of the Psychology Department at Florida International University (FIU). My project , titled HIV knowledge and perception among the Hijra (transgender) community in Mysore, India, used semi-structured focus group interviews to systematically investigate Hijras’ perceptions and knowledge of HIV/AIDs. Beyond identifying the impact of HIV in their lives, this project also highlighted the depths of misunderstand, lack of trust, and institutionalized stigmas these participants experienced across their daily life contexts.
Having the opportunity to take a leadership role in this study gave me the opportunity to enrich my knowledge about HIV, mixed methods, global health disparities and health inequalities; this resulted in my publication “Even an HIV infected person can live 100 years”: Perceptions of HIV among Hijras in Mysore, India (The Journal of Global Health- Columbia University). Building upon this foundational research experience, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Nehru Scholarship (2018-2019) to further delve into issues related to GBV, sexual health decision making, social support experiences, and the cultural factors informing Hijra’s perceptions of their wellbeing. My study’s results highlighted the fact that many health care providers lack education about transgender health (physical, emotional and mental) stigma against the community, and violence. Beyond the presentation of these findings at conferences and the preparation of manuscripts, I also lead several educational workshops in Mysore, India that sought to increase understandings about the local Hijra community’s health care needs, and other’s responsibility in addressing the stigma’s negatively affecting the physical, emotional and mental health of my research collaborators and participants.
The interconnectedness of these experiences was highlighted by my practicum assignment. I decided to develop my own project with Dr. Stephens to examine the experiences of Latino/a gender diverse emerging adults in Miami. Titled Experiences of LatinE Transgender and Gender Diverse people in South Florida, this currently underway study involves interviewing 25 transgender and gender diverse individuals self-identifying as Latino/a and have lived in Miami during both their adolescence and current emerging adulthood. I am interested in identifying the ways in which Miami’s Latin American culture specifically informs their sense of wellbeing at the psychological, physical and emotional levels.