Project Moxie, a research project at the University of Michigan, focuses on increasing transgender youth access to HIV testing kits. The project is in its pilot stage, and working on recruiting participants.

Rob Stephenson, the project director and a vice chair for research in the Department of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences, said he hopes Project Moxie will help break down social and economic barriers that transgender individuals face when receiving health care.

After participants fill out a series of surveys, HIV testing kits are sent to their homes in an effort to help them avoid the stigma often associated with either publicly purchasing these kits or going into a clinic to get tested. Participants then schedule a time to have a video chat session with one of Project Moxie’s trained counselors, where they can test themselves in front of the counselor and get help building a prevention plan. If the test is positive, they will receive help on how to get care and live with HIV.

“Throughout my work, I’ve noticed that young people in particular face a whole range of barriers to accessing health benefits, and one of the things I’m passionate about is understanding how stigma and discrimination influences health,” Stephenson said. “If you just watch the news, you can see the incredible amounts of stigma experienced by transgender youth, and I thought this is a way to provide an intervention in their own home that tackles some of those barriers.”

Though Stephenson couldn’t say for sure whether participants in the study would have found alternate testing without Project Moxie, he did say participants expressed appreciation for the at-home testing kits.

“We send them an HIV testing kit which they could find themselves at CVS or Walgreens, so I always ask, ‘Why didn’t you just do this yourself?’” Stephenson said. “And they say, ‘Well, we were scared, we don’t want to test on our own without anyone to talk to.’ Other common issues I hear are, ‘I don’t know where to go,’ or ‘I live in a rural area and there is nowhere to go,’ or ‘I don’t want to have to discuss my behavior or my identity with somebody.’”

So far, the study has reached 100 youth participants across the country. In order to recruit for the study, Project Moxie advertises on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Craigslist. Project Director Erin Riley said that of these various platforms, Instagram and Craigslist are the most effective. She said she was surprised to find Craigslist to be so effective.

“Craigslist is a bit archaic and it can be a little shady, so we didn’t add Craigslist until maybe three months ago when we were having some issues with recruitment,” Riley said. “But since we began putting up ads on there every day, we’ve gotten quite a few participants.”

LSA senior Michael Miller-Perusse began working with Project Moxie in September. He discussed the importance of the study for its target population.

“I think that it’s really important, just the impact of having studies out there,” Miller-Perusse said. “We know that when we created this study that there was no published research examining the need for HIV testing for transgender men, and we’re aiming for half of our cohort to be trans men and half to be trans women. So, even just having this research out there is great, regardless of the result.”

Stephenson said if the project is successful, he would love to try and expand it.

“Right now it’s only a pilot study,” Stephenson said. “If it’s proven feasible, I’d love to scale it up. We’re focusing on transgender youth now, there’s no reason we can’t expand this to other vulnerable groups as well. People who, for social, cultural or economic reasons, don’t have access to services; we can take the services to these people.”

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