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Gender Diversity and HIV Vulnerability in Côte d’Ivoire

A crowd formed in Arcus last Tuesday during common time, gathered around a screen upon which a presentation was projected. In front of the screen stood professor Mathew Thomann, poised before the microphone in anticipation to begin his presentation titled “HIV Vulnerability, Medical Governance, and the Erasure of Sexual and Gender Diversity in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.”

Part of a winter colloquium series hosted by the anthropology and sociology department at Kalamazoo College, the informative talk was created from a dissertation written by professor Thomann after his research concerning the exclusion of ambiguously defined groups categorized under the term branché.

The word branché derives from the French word branchér meaning “to connect or plug in” and has become a popular euphemism for sexual minorities to protect those that lie under this grouping from any ill wishes upon them by others. This word, however, leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation due to the lack of clarity as to the specific groups within the overarching branches. This misidentification has much to do with the incredibly specific language used to describe the various categorizations within the word.

Many branché use a language called woubi-can which functions as a sort of slang that is used among other branché to provide more specific identifications which can be founded on bodily characteristics, such as penis size, to preferred sexual positions. More recognizable groupings of branché include men who have sex with men, referred to as MSM, and travestis.

Travestis and other gender identifications found in Ivoirian society do not conform to Western views of transgender, which has created a difficult situation for the non-government organizations (NGOs) as well as many other programs established within Côte d’Ivoire to properly test for or prevent HIV/AIDS.

Relief for these communities has faced a barrier from the criteria required to treat an individual is decided upon by the western leaders of the organizations. These restrictions on who can be treated do not encompass the range of identifications that are present in the communities that the organizations intend to help. This has led to the misclassification of the branches to conform to the western classifications of identity. This is done so that the number of individuals helped may look favorably upon the organization so that they may expand the range of organization assistance.

Thomann believes that “intervention programs have to be adapted to the local context.” This is a necessary step to an inclusive HIV/AIDS prevention program, one which would require a great deal of effort and would positively impact the lives of many branché in a substantial manner.

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Gender Diversity and HIV Vulnerability in Côte d’Ivoire