This week at the International Aids Conference (IAC), Asia Catalyst presents preliminary findings from a joint research project on transgender sex workers conducted with two Chinese organizations, Beijing Zuoyou Information Center and Shanghai CSW & MSM Center.

Shanghai CSW (commercial sex worker) & MSM (men who have sex with men) Center (SCMC) was established in 2004 to focus on the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable sexual minorities in China. SCMC works to improve sexual minorities’ access to medical and legal services, and to improve the environment surrounding these vulnerable groups. As the secretariat of a sex workers network platform, SCMC also works in coalition with academic institutions, mass media, and other groups to improve public understanding of the discrimination faced by sex workers.

Respectively, the founding of the Beijing Zuoyou Information Center was prompted in 2004 by the rising threat of HIV/AIDS in China. The original goal of Beijing Zuoyou was to promote gay culture and advertise a healthy attitude towards sex. The center’s founders began by organizing events for gay men in Beijing, speaking publically about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and promoting safe sex. Through the activities held at the center, Beijing Zuoyou became a uniquely safe, open space for a demographic that is often ostracized in Chinese society.

In 2007, Beijing Zuoyou began to provide services to transgender sex workers through outreach efforts. The organization aimed to improve professional safety by teaching violence avoidance; protecting legal rights; and decreasing risky behavior by offering HIV and syphilis testing, medical referral, and case management.

With these unique skills and backgrounds, Shanghai CSW & MSM Center and Beijing Zuoyou Information Center partnered with Asia Catalyst in late 2013 for a research, documentation and advocacy project. Although both groups initially planned to work with Asia Catalyst on separate advocacy projects, after discussion it became evident that a joint research project would be beneficial to both organizations, strengthen the content of the work and focus the advocacy strategy. . The topic selected was the situation of transgender sex workers in China.

For both groups, this research is an important tool in furthering their goal to end discrimination against transgender sex workers. They hope to better understand how discrimination affects transgender people by examining the experiences of individuals. As little is known about transgender sex workers, the research will help to identify community needs, what the best ways to provide intervention services are, and raise the profile of the kind of stigma the community faces. As SCMC explained,  “We normally are not able to adequately understand these problems. Through this kind of research, we can make different classes of people see their problems.”

In the first half of 2014, Asia Catalyst conducted three workshops with key members of both organizations to solidify research and documentation skills. Proper training and preparation for this research was vital because, as SCMC puts it, “many transgender people’s main work is sex work, they are nervous that, after participating in an interview, their identity will be exposed.” The research methodology developed with Asia Catalyst is sensitive to these concerns, and does not divulge real names or video tape the interviews.

Beijing Zuoyou explained the importance of this research project: “In addition to sex work being illegal, which results in police harassment, [transgender sex workers] also face prejudice from the rest of the sexual minority community for both being transgender and being sex workers. These factors put them at greater risk for physical violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Our initial goals were to raise the visibility of this community, promote greater understanding thereby reduce the risks [sic].”As SCMC adds, “stopping all discrimination against all sex workers is very important.”

During this year’s IAC in Melbourne, Asia Catalyst, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou will distribute preliminary findings of the joint research project to peer groups, policy makers, AIDS experts and other stakeholders at this international event. The full report will be released at the end of 2014. In the meantime, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou remain optimistic that the AIDS community can reach a common understanding about how transgender people are discriminated against and the negative effects discrimination has on their right to health. Beijing Zuoyou hopes that this report will “create an environment where male and transgender sex workers will be free from discrimination and violence…and enjoy the rights of other citizens.”

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