Scholar Story: Bethany M. (bee) Coston, PhD

“I am a survivor of violence and sexual assault, so that deeply motivates me to continue my work. I’m especially passionate about working at the intersections of my various identities, so not just survivors of violence, but those who are at most risk for violence and its consequences.”

Throughout their life, Bethany M. (bee) Coston has grappled with intimate partner violence, family violence, and structural violence, and has witnessed the impacts of those traumas on mental and physical health. Identifying as bisexual, nonbinary, and disabled, bee feels strongly connected to these communities and has dedicated their research to the violence and trauma inflicted upon women and LGBTQ+ communities.

The lack of research surrounding LGBTQ+ communities, intimate partner violence, and the effect of that violence on LGBTQ+ health, motivated bee to complete their Master’s and PhD in Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies and to study violence experienced by LGBTQ+ people, particularly those also harmed by other structural inequalities.

Expanding Conversations about Violence and Relationships

Through their current research, bee hopes to expand conversations about who experiences and what causes intimate partner violence.

“For the most part, the violence that people experience every day in their lives is emotional, psychological—control or manipulation,” bee explains. “Though those are the really pervasive forms, you’re often experiencing multiple forms at once. I want to broaden our conversation of what violence looks like. What is a healthy relationship? In light of the current social conversations taking place, what is consent? What constitutes sexual violence? There are a lot of ways that people can be violent in relationships. One size does not fit all.”

bee’s research, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, indicates that—when narrowing the perpetrators to dating and sexual partners—74.77 percent of gay men and 79.41 percent of bisexual men experience intimate partner violence and that 80 percent of lesbian women and 94.12 percent of bisexual women experience this victimization. bee has also learned, from community work and personal experience, that LGBTQ+ people can sometimes internalize homophobia/transphobia, which can contribute to rates of intimate partner violence.

“We often believe what society has told us, that we’re unworthy,” bee explains. “I hope to expand our conversations about what happens when we internalize anti-LGBTQ+ feelings and—importantly—that it’s not just straight people or cisgender people who are internalizing anti-LGBTQ+ feelings and enacting violence. We’re also doing it to ourselves and to the people we love.”

Supporting Healing for LGBTQ+ People

As a 2017 New Connections Junior Investigator, bee’s research focuses on how victims of violence seek alternative means of healing and find ways to build resilience and how these methods can be incorporated into traditional healthcare. According to the Williams Institute,  LGBTQ+ people are less likely to address their trauma through traditional medicine often because of the lack of LGBTQ+ specific resources, legal exclusions for same-sex couples, or the fear of discrimination or outing themselves.

“They go to community organizations, if they exist, and those organizations are not always well equipped to handle instances of violence—they’re not always staffed with therapists,” bee says. “But more than that, even community organizations are often out of reach for rural queer people, poor queer people, queer people of color, and so on. My question is: If we don’t have competent and relatively easy health care access, what are ways we can heal and come out on the other side?”

For many LGBTQ+ people, nontraditional healing practices, like mindfulness, acupuncture, and yoga, can promote healing, and bee argues these methods should also be integrated into mainstream healthcare. While people may be diagnosed and treated for depression, anxiety, or PTSD by clinicians, this doesn’t mean that their trauma has been cured. Nontraditional mental health practices can have “measurable and meaningful outcomes for survivors of violence,” bee says.

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, bee is examining bisexual and non-monosexual* women and their healthcare utilization rates following violence (physical, sexual, emotional, control and/or stalking) by an intimate, dating, or sexual partner, looking at who goes to traditional providers and who seeks alternative providers or methods. Most of the research currently available, including from those sources referenced in this article, commonly attributes low healthcare usage in the LGBTQ+ community to sexuality and/or gender identity, but bee thinks it’s more complex. They are examining other identity categories through the survey, such as race ethnicity, age, education level, income and economic resources, location, immigration status, indigeneity, and disability.

bee says their status as a New Connections grantee has “already opened the door for me to do the work that I have wanted to do. It’s also been really great to network with people in New Connections. If you have work that’s important and meaningful you shouldn’t be isolated in doing it.”

* Non-monosexual women are women who have had sex/are interested in having sex with other women but don’t necessarily identify as bisexual.