“I have been privileged to spend the last several weeks working with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) here in South Africa. I, along with another student from the University of Michigan, am primarily serving by aiding in the transition from one phase to the next of a multi-site study in South Africa and Namibia. The primary aims of the study are determination of the HIV-prevention behaviors, needs, and barriers to care among male-male couples and to test whether testing for HIV in a dyad is effective in promoting long-term HIV-preventive behaviors. This study is organized and directed by four main scientists, Dr. Rob Stephenson (University of Michigan), Dr. Tim Lane (University of California, San Francisco), Dr. Lynae Darbes (University of Michigan), and Dr. Heidi van Rooyen (HSRC). These four have been kind enough to allow us to work on the study and have put tremendous effort forth in order to ensure that we are learning all that we can regarding community engagement, research rigor, and how to partner interculturally with humility.
I think that that last point has been the most interesting and seems to be one of the most important things with which I could be engaging. While interacting with community-based organizations here in South Africa and during our site visit in Namibia, it has become apparent that the experience of being same-gender loving (whether or not an individual identifies as “gay,” “bisexual,” or otherwise) in each of these countries is quite unique and complex. In engaging with topics such as stigma, homophobia, familial acceptance, and community safety related to sexuality, it can be difficult to approach the discussion without a preconceived notion of where the conversation should be directed and how these issues can be addressed. The more information that I discover and the more community members that I meet, however, the greater is my realization that I will never be the expert. As an outsider to the context and the issues being addressed, I can bring suggestions, ideas, and I can probe for information, but I will ultimately never understand the situation with the same nuance as those who experience it. Relying on the input of local activists and community members who have lived the experiences of same-gender love in each of these cultures has become perhaps the most important asset to ensuring that the research that is conducted is done so responsibly and can be translated into meaningful action and change.
It has been a privilege to engage with and hear from those community members that are co-implementing the research project. As many of them have begun to open of themselves and their stories, it has been beautiful to be able to learn what it means to be LGBTQ+ in another context, and be able to share a sense of community as we come together. Their input is not only recognized by all as essential to the study, but is a valuable piece of the human narrative. In growing closer to many here, I hope that I am able to honor their stories by hearing, listening, and learning from each of them and both the challenges and triumphs which so many of them have faced.
It is truly a gift to be here and be learning all of this. None of this experience would be possible without the kindness and financial support of the Wallenberg Summer Travel Award and the Program in International and Comparative Studies’ Research & Internship Funding. I am deeply grateful to each of those institutions and each of the individuals involved. Thank you all for the warmth of your generosity.”