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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spending nearly $200,000 to study how transgender women use social networking sites like Facebook and how their use affects their chances of getting HIV.
The Friends Research Institute, based in Maryland, received $194,788 last month to begin the project operating on the premise that due to “transphobia” transgendered women are forced to use social media as an outlet, often leading to risky sexual behaviors.
“High-risk male-to-female transgender women (hereafter "transwomen") face numerous concurrent cofactors for HIV acquisition and transmission including substance use, engagement in sex work, unemployment, low educational attainment, homelessness, and hormone misuse,” the grant’s description reads. “In Los Angeles County, estimates of HIV prevalence among transwomen are 15 [percent] overall, and 17 [percent] among Latinas, 29 [percent] among Native Americans, and 48 [percent] among African American/black transwomen.”
“As a result of discrimination/stigma, prejudice, and individual and structural forms of transphobia, transwomen form dense communities comprised primarily of other transwomen,” it said.
Facebook recently added more than 50 gender options for its users to choose from to accommodate transgendered individuals. Users can now identify as “Agender,” “Androgynous,” “Cis,” “Two-spirit,” or over 20 variations of “trans.”
The latest government research project argues that transwomen use social network websites to “develop social support structures, connect with members of their community, receive positive and re- affirming perspectives on their gender identity, and inform behavioral norms.” They also use online groups to gain illegal hormones and find “sex work partners,” according to the grant.
The study will examine the use of these online resources and how they influence transgendered women’s behavior.
The grant will fund focus groups and “iPad Social Network Interviews” with about 300 transwomen in order to define their “egocentric social networks.”
One of the project’s aims is to determine how the “behavior of other people” on social media influences transwomen to engage in “HIV risk” or “protective behaviors.”
“This formative research has high public health significance as it can lead to the development of an easily accessible, culturally relevant, and private technology-based HIV intervention for this high-risk population,” the grant argues.
The project will likely receive additional funding in the future, since it is scheduled to last until March 2016.
Dr. Cathy Reback, a research sociologist at Friends Research Institute, is leading the study. Reback’s expertise is the “the intersection of HIV risk behaviors, substance use, sexual identity and gender identity.”
According to the Institute, Reback was one of the first researchers to discover that gay men engage in sexually risky behaviors while high on methamphetamine.