How One Health Department is Working with the Transgender Community: A Case Study in Montana

By Laurie Kops, STD/HIV Section Supervisor, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

Laurie Kops, STD/HIV Section Supervisor, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

Laurie Kops, STD/HIV Section Supervisor, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

It would be fair to say that many in Montana, including those in public and private health agencies, would be quite stunned to realize the significant number of transgender, gender-nonconforming, and gender-variant individuals living in this vast state, even though we are not able to accurately quantify this demographic. As populations that are under-recognized, underserved, stigmatized and at risk for HIV and STD infection, it is imperative that support, services and understanding be generously and vigorously offered.

The Montana HIV Planning Group (HPG) has been a champion in many areas. The group has been a progressive, integrated (HIV prevention, HIV treatment, STD prevention and Hepatitis prevention) HPG for years, and has provided thoughtful consideration during the myriad of changes in HIV prevention interventions and services. In addition, HPG members have been a voice in local communities against stigma and discrimination, and, most recently, agreed that it is vital to examine the health needs of the transgender, gender-nonconforming, and gender-variant populations.

The Montana HIV Prevention Program has contracted with a professor from the University of Montana, who serves as the HIV Prevention Program’s evaluator, and a graduate student who are interested and committed to this issue, to conduct an exploratory study examining the needs of this particular population in Montana. The director of the Montana Gender Expansion Project has been a key collaborator and integral to the success of the project. The goal of the project is twofold.

First we hope to describe, from the perspective of individuals who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, their experience of living in Montana. We are planning on using a modified version of Photovoice. Photovoice is a collaborative participatory methodology to collect individual’s personal stories by limiting interviewer bias. The technique utilizes photo-elicitation and digital storytelling to allow participants to create visuals that capture their individual perspectives. The project directors hope to share the stories of these marginalized populations in an effort to provide insight into how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future in our sparsely populated, conservative, rural state.

Our second goal is to create an anonymous survey that will be widely distributed through various forms of electronic media. The survey will help us identify personal, interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy factors that contribute to the quality of life of transgender individuals. In addition, through both the Photovoice technique and the survey, we hope to identify factors that inhibit and facilitate behaviors that contribute to infection with HIV and other STDs.

The HIV Prevention Program and the Gender Expansion Project are seeking to use information gathered through this project to increase awareness and to make informed decisions regarding the prevention needs of the transgender and gender variant population in Montana.

I am personally grateful to, and impressed with the many Montanans who are participating in this project, and I look forward to being able to share the end results with all who are interested.

We want to hear from you! How is your health department addressing the needs of the transgender community in your state? Tell us how by leaving a comment below.
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