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VCU assistant professor working to reform the Richmond Police Department

Eli Coston, Ph.D., has been involved with helping the LGBTQ+ community as well as advocating for civilian oversight of the Richmond PD.
Eli Coston

Eli Coston, Ph.D., was in graduate school living right outside New York City when gay marriage was legalized. Looking past the newfound optimism and hope, Coston began to notice that violence against LGBTQ+ people, especially those of color, persisted in their community despite the progress being made. Shocked by these egregious acts, Coston sought to find an explanation. “I wanted to understand the kind of individual level factors that played into [this violence],” says Coston. “As well as the other policies we can implement that make things better for black folks and other people of color. Even though I largely analyze LGBTQ issues, we can't forget that those are impacted by racial dynamics as well.”

Coston received their doctorate in sociology from Stony Brook University, specializing in criminology, gender and sexuality, and race and ethnicity. Their research examines how the intersections of race, class and gender create differing experiences of marginalization and oppression for people who are LGBTQ+. Their largest focus is on anti-LGBTQ+ hate violence—specifically, how structural visibility from LGBTQ+ public policy decisions impact rates of violence and how further marginalization due to race, class and gender create differing experiences for victimization.

Coston’s passion for LGBTQ+ rights followed them to Richmond when they joined the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies two years ago as an assistant professor, after a stint in the VCU’s Department of Sociology. “The department’s values and their mission drew me, and is representative of the type of collaborative work that happens in the department,” Coston said in reference to GSWS. “It's just an amazing space for us to be able to kind of think together, collaborate together, problem solve together and pull in a wide range of perspectives.”

In addition to the work they do with VCU, Coston is actively involved in the Richmond community as a member of the Richmond Police Transparency and Accountability Project. “The goal was to establish civilian oversight of the Richmond Police Department. I was involved in a good deal of the data analysis. We submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Richmond Police Department to really understand what policing looks like in Richmond,” Coston said. Through their work with the task force, Coston has been able to get legislation passed to improve policing in Richmond. “Through my connections with [the project], I worked with Senator Ghazala Hashmi to establish civilian oversight in bill SB5035 which was adopted in the 2020 Special Legislative section. Things like being able to make disciplinary decisions for officers, being able to actually subpoena police records so that, in the course of investigations if there is more evidence needed, the police can't just deny access to those things including their officer,” Coston said. Currently they are serving as the co-chair of the Task Force to Establish Civilian Oversight of the Richmond Police Department.

Additionally, Coston works as a translational research fellow with the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “The program essentially helps researchers and scholars translate their work into language that's accessible for policymakers,” Coston said. “I think that being part of that program was hugely important for me to be able to subsequently do this work [about policing]. I was able to sit down with policymakers, write policy briefs and be able to help inform what that legislation, either at the city or state level, looks like.”

Coston’s work with police reform in Richmond also intersects with their passion for the LGBTQ+ rights as they work to further understand how policing impacts this community. When Coston first came to Richmond, they were involved with Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an organization for LGBTQ+ liberation across lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender and sexuality in the south. “LGBTQ+ folks aren’t super legible in policing data. We know that LGBTQ+ folks are also over policed, particularly LGBTQ+ folks of color. In being involved with Southerners on New Ground, we can't look specifically at the disparities for LGBTQ+ people, but we can look at the racial disparities,” Coston said. “This is because police data itself doesn't identify LGBTQ+ people unless they were specifically the victim of a hate crime and targeted for their gender identity or sexual orientation. That kind of work -- in trying to identify and reduce racial disparities in policing -- also has a carryover benefit of impacting LGBTQ+ people of color,” Coston said. Ultimately, Coston would like to “minimize the harms of policing to those who are most impacted by it,” they said.

When Coston isn’t busy pushing for police reform or advocating for the lives of LGBTQ+ folks, you can find them playing Animal Crossing and getting active within the community. “I'm involved with Stonewall Sports, a community-based sports organization for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. I just captained a kickball team and I’m gonna be doing beach volleyball with them this summer,” Coston said. “I think it's incredibly important because it gives LGBTQ+ people a place to play sports that is inclusive and supportive. As you might know, participation in sports can be especially challenging for trans and non-binary people because of lack of inclusion or awareness around those issues. Stonewall Sports isn't just about the sports themselves though, it serves as a place for socializing and community building.”

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