Understanding sexual behavior in transgender women

New public health study is a game-changer

Health issues in the transgender community, from a public research perspective, are routinely understudied. The National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS), which ICF’s health researchers support on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a small step in the right direction. NHBS targets men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and other groups at increased risk for HIV. Beyond a pilot phase, NHBS hasn’t applied HIV surveillance among transgender women (transwomen).

Until now. 

A drawing of NHBS by Evelyn Olansky

A new horizon

The groundbreaking NHBS-Trans study focuses on transwomen—and will result in one of the largest intentional samples of a trans population in the history of trans research. Not only does it present an unprecedented opportunity to expand on prior trans research conducted with small convenience samples, it will offer insight not yet described in public health literature.

ICF supports this project from two angles: onsite coordination and data management (at CDC) and offsite data coordination and technical assistance (at ICF headquarters).

Evelyn Olansky
At the helm of this game-changing study? ICF’s own transgender expert Evelyn Olansky, who is both transgender and a public health researcher (a rare combination in the field). “The first success of NHBS-Trans is in affirming transgender lives,” she says. “It may seem hyperbolic, but many trans people still struggle with those who deny our existence. The effort and dedication I’ve seen poured into this project tells me that the world is beginning to listen to us.”

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With a transgender person involved in the creation of the protocol, survey, and implementation, we can identify and avoid missteps before they happen.

Why it matters

The NHBS-Trans is an early step towards including trans people in large-scale federal surveys. The survey results will uncover one level of analysis. The lessons learned while creating the survey, however, will shed light on its own story. And will improve future efforts to reach trans populations and other hard-to-reach groups...because there’s still much to learn about the lives of transgender people in the United States. At the same time, there’s much more we need to learn about respectfully engaging trans people in research.