Changing the channel on gender identity

Ayden Scheim

“This is a great media moment,” said Ayden Scheim, when news broke of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.

Scheim, who is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, is focusing his research on several factors impacting the transgender community – from HIV risk mental health, and substance use, to the impact of social exclusion on the health of trans individuals.

The young scholar also has the distinction of being a Trudeau Foundation Scholarship and Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient; a rarity across the country, and the first graduate student from a medical school to ever be awarded a Trudeau Scholarship. The Scholarships have provided him with increased funding to pursue his research on an international level.

While Caitlyn Jenner has brought the conversation about transgender into households across the world, Scheim finds other high-profile transgender people such as Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black and Janet Mock, contributing editor for Marie Claire, have important lessons to teach the public.

“Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, who are black transgender women, have used their roles to discuss inequities in the transgender population,” said Scheim. “The high levels of violence, murder and health disparities that transgender women of colour experience – those are stories that have not made major media until relatively recently.”

That’s where Scheim’s research picks up from the daily news. “I’m finishing a paper that takes a broader look at sexual health in transgender women,” said Scheim.

Based on research from the United States, there has been an assumption in the academic community that all transgender women inherently have a higher risk of contracting HIV. Populations considered high risk for HIV transmission – people living in poverty and sex workers – were recruited for these studies, resulting in research that Scheim considers problematic.

In contrast, half of the participants in Scheim’s Ontario-based study had not had a sexual partner in the past year. “Our findings are challenging some of the pre-conceived notions in the field and can change what transgender people look like and what their lives look like.”

Scheim hopes to take a key role in developing and translating that research to policy and legal work, nationally and internationally.

The Trudeau and Vanier scholarships have started him on that path, helping him travel across the world to meet like-minded researchers. “What’s been amazing for me during the past year has been the opportunity to meet with people who work around health, human rights and transgender people in even more difficult circumstances than we live in,” said Scheim.

As a researcher, Scheim believes it’s important to provide clarity on what being transgender really means and feels a personal responsibility to the transgender community. “Researchers have a huge responsibility to talk about gender in the community and not allow it to be painted with a single brush,” said Scheim. “We need to make sure that the research is focused on getting results out and getting that research to policy makers.”