Faculty Feature: Will Beckham on LGBTQ Health
Meet Will Beckham
Will Beckham, PhD ’13, reflects on the power of bringing lived experience to research, teaching, and practice around HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and LGBTQ health.
- Role: Assistant scientist
- Years with HBS: 2015 – present
- Fun fact: “I find it rewarding to create big things slowly over time. I like pointillism, cross-stitching, and doing jigsaw puzzles.”
Beckham’s interest in public health began during his undergraduate years, following a study abroad trip to Tanzania. Shortly after arriving, he developed malaria. During his treatment, Beckham moved through the country’s public and private health system. He observed a need for public health interventions at the grassroots level, which inspired him to pursue further training in the field.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Beckham worked for the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale University. He then matriculated into a joint degree program at Yale, earning his MPH and MA in African Studies in 2009, which allowed him to meld his interests in sociology and anthropology with his passion for public health.
He then joined the Department of International Health for his doctoral training, earning his PhD from the Bloomberg School in 2013. Beckham spent most of his doctoral years and postdoctoral training living in Tanzania. While there, he contributed to a range of programs related to HIV treatment and prevention, mainly involving female sex workers and HIV prevention.
Today, Beckham is an assistant scientist with HBS, where he researches HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ health, with an emphasis on the health of transgender and gender diverse communities. In August 2022, Beckham will begin a new role as Director of Research Projects at the Trevor Project, which serves LGBTQ youth, though he will retain an adjunct position in HBS.
Reflections on HBS
What do you enjoy most about HBS?
I really enjoy the people. The people that come to HBS, the faculty and the staff and the students, choose HBS because they really care about people and social justice and health equity. It's good people that are pulled into that work. Everyone brings their own unique flavor and lived experience and the passion about the work.
Something very special about HBS is that everyone you talk to has just really great stories, reasons for doing what they do.
Training and Teaching
How has your interdisciplinary training informed your approach as a scholar and instructor?
The interdisciplinary approach is really important to me. I taught two courses on LGBTQ health and one on gender and health. I love not being limited to what's in PubMed. I enjoy going beyond, exploring anthropology and sociology and history, to understand the structures and bigger factors that are influencing people and their ability to make choices.
I want all my students to have those big-picture, critical-thinking skills. If we want to change things, we have to understand structural factors rather than just blaming the victim. There are all these other complex issues going into those individual choices.
You’ve received multiple Excellence in Teaching Awards for your courses. How would you describe your teaching style?
Being out and proud is a very important part of my life as a human and as a professor.
The people who decide to take my classes are often LGBTQ themselves or have a close relative or friend who identifies as LGBTQ, or finds something that's interesting or personal about the course. That’s different from other courses where, usually, there’s not such a personal connection.
LGBTQ communities are so heavily stigmatized and discriminated against today. We've won a lot of rights over the last few years, but we've also faced a huge backlash because of it. Trans people like me are especially under attack today.
In various states, there are over 100 anti-trans bills going on in legislatures right now in the United States. And, so, to teach a class on this is very personal. I bring into class that acknowledgment and that personal lived experience that I do have, including personal lived experience of having been in the closet, and then coming out and transitioning. My co-instructor, Chris Breyer, as a gay man who lived through the AIDS epidemic, also brings personal experience.
The class can be very draining and heavy. I brought in this idea of having the students share a queer hero at the end of every class, which is an idea that I got from a Cameron Esposito podcast. At the end of every class, we emphasize the heroes, the strengths, the assets-based resilience of the community. We’re cautious of toxic positivity, but we also want to acknowledge that this community is very rich with people doing wonderful things.
Research and Practice
What are some of the research projects that you’re currently pursuing?
I am on several projects. I'm finishing up a K-award on men who have sex with men's preferences for long-acting injectable PrEP. That's also morphed into a follow-up, three-year project on the same topic with the same people.
I'm also co-investigator on various projects having to do with preferences, especially discrete choice experiments. I’m analyzing how to repurpose technologies that combine injectable PrEP with pregnancy prevention for women at risk, including one project that’s looking at the bioethics behind molecular testing for HIV and one on injectable preferences in Kenya.
With the pandemic, I'm on a project that's looking at COVID impacts, specifically in transgender people in the United States. That's really where my main interest lies. My research revolves around this area of HIV and LGBTIQ people and preferences, with a focus on meeting the needs of the end user and making products and programs best for that user.
What you find most challenging and most rewarding about the work that you do?
Most challenging would be grant writing, but most rewarding would be teaching. After a day of teaching, I feel really energized and invigorated. I love seeing students get it and helping them think through an idea and open their eyes to new places to find information or new ways to think or new frameworks.
On a personal note, I've been studying injectable PrEP for many, many years now. Injectable PrEP is finally FDA-approved, and more and more information is becoming available out in the public.
My son, who's 19, was out one night. He had a conversation with a friend about injectable PrEP and how I helped play a part in making it available. That was the most heartwarming thing. It was really beautiful, way better than getting a peer-reviewed publication accepted – feeling like work I'm doing is actually impacting people.
Advice for Public Health Students
What advice do you have for current and prospective public health students?
With the internet and the amount of information that's out there these days, I feel like the job of a student in the program is less about learning the content. It's about learning the skills, the methods, the approaches of critical thinking. They can feel a little bit more boring sometimes, but they’re so valuable. You can apply those methods to basically any sort of disease or condition or topic. If you learn social network analysis, you can apply it to TB or drug use or any number of areas.
You can get information really quickly and just amassing facts isn't necessarily the end game. It's about application.
This interview has been edited and compressed. Views expressed are the subject's own.