By GRACE LAZZARA
Published February 13, 2023
Akua O. Gyamerah, assistant professor of community health and health behavior, is a scholar-activist who wants to reveal the social inequalities that drive health disparities, and use her research to fight for a better world. Research isn’t the only way she takes on the issues that concern her, but she’s committed to understanding and addressing health disparities that emerge from structural inequities.
On the scholarly side of the equation, Gyamerah is a sociomedical scientist — someone who studies health and medicine from a social-science perspective. Her research broadly aims to understand the complex and intersectional causes of health disparities among racial, sexual and gender minorities.
On the activist side, Gyamerah organizes on behalf of LGBTQ rights in the U.S. and in Africa. Her activism has helped evolve her research interests and, one suspects, the reverse might also be true.
“I’m in an area of work now where I can use research to inform social justice issues. It’s part of my life, and what activates and grounds me,” she says.
Gyamerah became greatly interested in LGBTQ issues when she went back to her home country, Ghana, before starting her doctoral training at Columbia University. While there, she heard negative media commentary on LGBTQ people and became curious about its impact on their health. She soon connected with LGBTQ rights organizations in Ghana to find out what kind of advocacy work they were doing.
At the time, she recalls, “There was international debate and uproar around laws in Africa to further criminalize homosexuality. Also, because the West was seeing progress in LGBTQ rights, [anti-LGBTQ] forces from the West started going to Africa to try to push their agenda there. This was the context where I started to look at these issues, HIV in particular.”
Her dissertation used Ghana as a case study to examine the historic exclusion of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM) in African HIV policies, factors that shaped the shift to include them in policies, and the programmatic and social impact of this shift. She later published an article about the debate and its impact on social conditions and HIV programming for GBMSM, titled “Moral Panic and Other Unintended Consequences in Ghana’s Paradigm Shift to Address HIV Among Men Who Have Sex with Men.”
Gyamerah’s work has attracted support, including from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Fulbright Program. She also completed the National Institutes of Mental Health-funded Traineeships in AIDS Prevention Studies fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. Her next project builds on her research in Ghana and applies the Black feminist theory intersectionality to understand the impact of intersectional social stressors on mental health and HIV treatment outcomes of GBMSM living with HIV in Ghana.
“Intersectionality posits that multiple oppressed identities interlock to produce marginalization unique from that of the individual identities, producing a different lived reality. It offers incredible insights for understanding health disparities,” she explains.
Stateside, some of Gyamerah’s other work has examined factors that lead to gender disparities in health outcomes.
“I compared different racial groups of trans women, looking at experiences of hate crimes and the factors shaping hate crime experiences and reporting to police,” she says. The findings help make sense of the disparities observed among trans women. For instance, although hate crime experiences were high among trans women, Black and Latina trans women are more likely to experience battery with a weapon — a more fatal form of violence — than are white or Asian trans women.
At its most basic level, Gyamerah’s work shows how social conditions shape health outcomes, inarguably vital knowledge that surely has echoes in many spheres. In her work both in Ghana and San Francisco, she sees “very marginalized groups in contexts where things are slowly starting to improve but also lead to a polarization or backlash that makes progress harder. It’s a historical process, and we need to surveil and monitor this so that we can trace the health impact and inform policies.”