Dr. Brandon Hill, executive director at the University of Chicago's Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health ( Ci3 ), described the center's objective as "to really give voice to racial and sexual minorities, with the goal of policy implications." Two recent projects within Ci3, just founded in 2012, have been LGBTQ-focusedand could impact people around the city and beyond.
The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund ( TLDEF ) serves about 300 people nationally and is connected with some major Chicago area firms. Hill explained that TLDEF has provided free-of-cost name change services to transgender identified or gender non-conforming individuals for several years.
"Anecdotally, they always thought this improved people's well-being and health, but because they're a service, they had never started to look at if it quantitatively improves health," Hill said. "So we proposed to look at before-name-change experiences of stigma and discrimination: social determinates of health like housing, employment status, and access to health care, as well as depression, anxiety and self-esteem. [Subjects] go through the name-change process with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education fund, and six months after their name change, we'll revisit some of the same things. We'll start to see if legal name change actually starts to open the door from way way way back here, like, 'OK, now I can get a job.' Well, people who have jobs may have health insurance. People who have health insurance tend to have better health outcomes."
The policy implications are clear. As Hill pointed out, "There are structural barriers that exist in changing your name, like requiring an attorney, requiring filling, posting in a public venue your former name and your new name. It's a huge structural hoop that for most people, that for most people, it's not worth it. The policy, you can change that."
This research is still in data collection, but another Ci3 project is both Chicago-centric and in full swing. South Side Stories documents the experiences of minority youth of color, including gay or bisexual youth. The youth go through a storytelling workshop, ultimately recording a digital piece with an audio-visual narrative, which can be seen online at www.southsidestories.org .
"It's really a whole process, in isolating a story or event or something that you want to convey that represents yourself, your identity, or a transition in your identity." Hill said. "There are some that are coming out stories, some that are living life stories. We've found thematic threads. They're not too long, they convey a moment in time that this person wants to express."
Efforts like this help Ci3 and partners such as the South Side YMCA, Global Girls and Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus understand the challenges communities face. Hill called number-intensive research "a good middle ground," but said that "lending face, voice, imagery: the real statistics of Chicago" can be experiential evidence to help policy specialists identify clues to where resources lack.
While other institutions certainly do health research, Hill singled out Ci3's commitment to interdisciplinarity and its focus on how structural and social determinants of health impact long-term health itself as making the center unique. For instance, they have a policy specialist on staff to demonstrate "the connection with health overall, and why policy should exist to correct [social issues] because of the health implications."
He discussed some challenges of doing Ci3's kind of research. With a different project, a summer science and technology class for minority teenagers, he said that they were literally coming up with ways to measure their results while also developing the curriculum.
"We had to kind of borrow from other disciplines to create measures that didn't exist. How do you measure cooperation? Emergence of leadership? Group cohesion? There are plenty of educational evaluators, but when you're doing it in an informal setting, it really challenges us to think differently."
Hill came to Ci3 from the Kinsey Institute, which he described as a "pinnacle of sexuality research." There, he said, he was exposed to interdisciplinary methods, and when he heard of Ci3, he was excited by the opportunity to build something "from the ground up."
"Ci3 is situated in the University as a nexus for interdisciplinary work that ties together health, sexuality, medicine and the humanities," he explained. Most of the small center's projects currently come from faculty members investigating health and social challenges, and they focus on all manner of sexual and reproductive issues. Right now Hill is the main researcher on LGBTQ issues, but as Ci3 takes on more global research and local projects expand, he hopes to hire additional researchers in LGBTQ health, while still focusing on the South and West Side.
He referenced one of the South Side Stories, that of a young man commuting on the Red Line from 95th Street to Belmont and Halsted. "That distance just seems like a world apart for him. The feeling is so distant from a sense of LGBTQ community from the South Side. It's not that it doesn't exist, but for a person who's just coming out, sometimes I think that feeling of indifference is maximized by not seeing resources in your neighborhoods." If Ci3's work starts impacting social policy, perhaps those resources will appear.