“Gay for Pay” in an Economy of Harms

Reflections from an LGBTI rights NGO in Malawi

On a chilly July morning, three young people mill about the lobby of Malawi’s LGBTI rights NGO, Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), located in the capital, Lilongwe. They wait to drop off forms documenting the number of men who have sex with men (MSM) that they reached with condoms, lubricants, and safer-sex messages this week. They will also report the number of human rights violations cases referred to victim support units or Malawi’s Human Rights Commission. These peer educators gripe among themselves about delays in receiving their small monthly stipends, claiming they should be paid more for the work they do everyday in the “field.”

Gift (the other author) on International Human Rights Day (2016) in Mzuzu, Malawi.

Peer educators (PEs) are central to efforts to mitigate the spread of HIV in “rights-constrained” environments like Malawi. As skilled and compassionate advocates, conduits for information, and role models, they also mobilize peers to attend workshops or training sessions. From the “same group” as their clients, PEs are assumed to “empathize and understand the emotions, thoughts, feelings, language of the participants, and therefore, relate better,” as an internal manual put it. Yet their status as volunteers amid lack of funds for salaries obscures the fundamental work PEs contribute to research, health interventions, and advocacy. Further, whereas significant effort is put into protecting confidentiality and ensuring high ethical standards are met for research participants or target populations (PEs’ clients), less attention is paid to ethical issues faced by LGBTI-identified volunteers who implement project objectives touted in a donor report for “maintaining high retention and increasing the knowledge of and access to HIV information and justice services for underserved MSM” in Malawi.

Receiving small stipends—and per diems for attending workshops and trainings—has become in Malawi a survival strategy; in the absence of jobs, LGBTI young people are “gay for pay,” to playfully recycle a phrase that frequently appears in headlines in Malawi’s national newspapers.
The language of community engagement deployed in policy meetings, scholarship, and research proposals obscures the unequal distribution of harms and benefits related to engagement. For example, the visibility of PEs in Malawi and their association with CEDEP (a “gay organization”) and with known or presumed gays means means they risk being called “all kinds of names” (in the words of one PE), marked by those in their community, or blackmailed upon meeting new clients who threaten to expose them. PEs aim to meet weekly quotas, documented on report sheets, for distributing materials and interacting with clients, though some refuse to sign attendance sheets with their real names amid fears of homophobic violence or blackmail. CEDEP volunteers and staff have been arrested for carrying HIV-prevention materials targeting MSM, viewed by law enforcement officials as “pornography.” Finally, in workshops where MSM helped train health service providers (HSPs) about LGBTI issues, PEs worried that HSPs who were “only [at workshops] for the money [per diems]” might go back to the hospital and “out” them.

CEDEP’s budget, wholly funded by donors, rarely includes budget lines for salaries or protections to improve the security of PEs working in homophobic contexts. For example, while CEDEP experienced pressure from a donor to collect data about an MSM HIV prevention program, the donor was reluctant to supply CEDEP staff and PEs with vehicles that would help achieve targets for data collection and provide personnel security against violence and attacks they experience on foot. One CEDEP PE is regularly beaten as he walks along a main path near the town center in his home district. While these beatings have gone on for a long time, he said he feels his regular attendance of workshops and trainings on “gay issues” has made him a “marked man.”

While ethical guidelines for compensation for participation (e.g., surrendering data to research projects via survey responses or blood tests) in research studies are clearly spelled out, there is less clarity about how to compensate individuals who make projects work, such as PEs. The same logics around undue inducement—that compensation for research participation should not be so large as to be coercive—obtain in discussions about volunteers. A recent consultant’s report on CEDEP’s peer education program, for example, suggested that CEDEP focus on recruiting PEs who are “not just…there for the money and not results oriented.” Such findings affirm connotations of altruism and generosity carried by the term “volunteer,” but obscure the fact that PEs rely on the salary they collect for doing what they themselves, without recourse to formal jobs, explicitly name as work.

The figure of the LGBTI-identified peer educator invites us to critically consider the unpredictable consequences and social relations that arise in infrastructures of engagement.
Receiving small stipends—and per diems for attending workshops and trainings—has become in Malawi a survival strategy; in the absence of jobs, LGBTI young people are “gay for pay,” to playfully recycle a phrase that frequently appears in headlines in Malawi’s national newspapers (suggesting that LGBTI persons pretend to be gay to gain access to international monies). For LGBTI persons, CEDEP—and the safer space it provides to those not welcome in church or family arrangements—becomes an important patron in LGBTI persons’ constellation of social relations. LGBTI persons have regular contact with CEDEP, and many harbor dreams that one day they might work full time for NGOs.

While LGBTI persons in Malawi appreciate the HIV care and testing, antiretroviral therapy (ART), trainings, condoms, and lubes they gain access to through engagement with CEDEP, their other most acutely felt need is economic support, loans or jobs. Items they receive from CEDEP stoke their hopes, and call upon them to become certain kinds of people so they might benefit from the NGO’s largesse in the future. Volunteering, then, is inherently a social form whose content is motivated and informed by economic desires and an imagined better future, even as dominant sentimental discourse hesitates to frame care as a commodity or to acknowledge that volunteering could ever be incentivized. By valorizing an ideal-type volunteer who eschews greed and self-interest, donors, researchers and consultants delegitimize PEs’ claims that they deserve more for their risky labor.

The figure of the LGBTI-identified peer educator invites us to critically consider the unpredictable consequences and social relations that arise in infrastructures of engagement. Their experiences teach us that even as community engagement might build social networks and trust, it also generates an “economy of harms”: a network of social relations that hinge on transactions that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable, that takes shape amid circuits of global health and human rights resource distribution in Africa. A more capacious interpretation of “harm” makes visible a plethora of negotiations and daily challenges often framed as mere side effects to larger projects. An anthropological lens that centers the experiences of actors in between donors and key populations sheds light on how LGBTI people ambivalently navigate a network of social relations that hinges on transactions that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable.

Crystal Biruk is assistant professor of anthropology at Oberlin College and Gift Trapence is the executive director of CEDEP in Malawi.

Questions, comments, ideas or submissions? Please send to AQA contributing editors Ann Kakaliouras at akakalio@whittier.edu, Elijah Adiv Edelman at eedelman@ric.edu, and Ryan Thoreson at ryan.thoreson@gmail.com.

Cite as: Biruk, Crystal and Gift Trapence. 2017. “‘Gay for Pay’ in an Economy of Harm.” Anthropology News website, April 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.405

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