Anthony Belotti began advocating for trans students as a teen
In 1969, protests over the treatment of the queer community by police came after The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was raided. The ensuing rebellion has become a rallying point for LGBTQ+ rights.
To mark the anniversary of those events, VPM News is highlighting some of the queer leaders in Richmond whose work has had a direct impact on the lives of other LGBTQ+ Virginians.
When Anthony Belotti was 16, they began their career in activism by advocating for protections for transgender students in their hometown of Stafford County. The policies Belotti fought for the school board to pass still protect transgender students in the district today.
That work, according to Belotti, was motivated by concern for not only their safety, but the safety of other queer students.
“The final straw for me was when I had my life threatened in a bathroom by a cis, male student. And that's when I knew that something had to change,” said Belotti, who studies gender and political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I understood that I wasn't the only one that was experiencing this. And also, these people were my friends.”
According to The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, queer children are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual, cisgender peers. A 2020 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 83% of transgender and nonbinary youth experience depressive symptoms, 54% seriously consider suicide and 29% have attempted suicide. Even compared to other LGBTQ+ youth, the study reported that transgender and nonbinary children are disproportionately affected by these experiences.
Trans-inclusive activism begins in high school
When they were 14 years old, Belotti came out of the closet as a transgender man. They now identify as nonbinary.
Growing up in rural Virginia as an out queer person was not only uncomfortable but dangerous, according to Belotti. But they found a mentor at school who empowered them to seek better conditions for themself and their fellow queer students.
Janae Williams, who taught Belotti’s “servant learning” class, tasked her students with organizing and executing a community event. For their project, Belotti archived stories of queer and trans people in Stafford County Public Schools. Their intention was to present that information to the school board and motivate its members to take action to protect students.
“I came up with about three demands,” Belotti said.
Those demands were for antibias training on race, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation for staff and for the creation of a superintendent advisory committee made up of minority parents and students. Belotti also advocated for gender identity and sexual orientation to be added to the school’s antidiscrimination policy.
In 2016, Belotti began a long battle with the school board to pass these policies.
“Over the next two to three years, we got each of those, one by one. I did that by packing school board meetings, going to meetings with politicians, working with other local activists and parents, and collecting stories of queer folks and finding other queer students who were able to be out and share their stories,” said Belotti, who currently works as funding coordinator for Peter’s Place RVA, an organization that connects LGBTQ+ people with recovery and housing assistance.
The school board voted in 2017 to form The Equity, Diversity, and Opportunity Committee. According to InsideNOVA, LGBTQ+ community members helped tip the scales by testifying about their experiences with bullying in the district.
In 2019, the school board passed an LGBTQ+-inclusive nondiscrimination policy. According to Metro Weekly, those policies "prohibit discrimination against students and staff based on their sexual orientation or gender identity." The same year, the Potomac Local reported that high school teachers in the district received training on supporting and understanding LGBTQ+ students.
Belotti’s younger sibling, Irot, still attends school in Stafford County. They said that while things aren’t perfect, they and their fellow queer students feel more empowered to stand up for their rights than they would have without Anthony’s leadership.
“We have a [genders and sexualities alliance group] at our school, and the students in there know their rights. The students that don't have accessibility to staying after [school to attend meetings] … definitely don't know that those policies exist,” Irot said. “If those did not exist, I would be left handling all of these instances [of transphobic discrimination] on my own.”
Irot said they still face discrimination in their high school. While the policies that Belotti fought for are on the books, they said, those rules aren’t always enforced unless students advocate for themselves.
“It takes one trans person being like, ‘Hey, these policies exist,’ for the staff to notice them. Which is really frustrating,” Irot said. “[But] there's definitely a lot more teachers that are willing to provide support to queer students.”
Crafting state-level protections
Amid Belotti’s campaign for equal protections for transgender students in Stafford County, they met Joshua Cole, who at the time was running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. He would go on to represent a Virginia house district that included Stafford between 2020 and 2022.
As a queer pastor and educator, Cole testified at the same meetings where Belotti organized demonstrations as a high schooler.
“This was something I had to get behind, because we wanted to make sure we were fighting for our students in my hometown,” Cole said. “I worked in the school system as a behavior aide. I'm also a pastor in the area. So, we're constantly hearing the stories, the horror stories and the testimonies of our LGBTQIA youth who are experiencing the struggles ... whether it's at home or in the school system.”
The pair got to know each other after Cole gave Belotti a ride home from a meeting, and they kept in touch throughout the pastor’s campaign. When he took office, Cole asked Belotti to join his staff as a legislative aide and consultant on issues that affect queer Virginians.
That collaboration resulted in House Bill 145, which required the commonwealth’s education department to “develop model policies concerning the treatment of transgender students.” Belotti helped edit the bill, which passed in 2020. School boards across Virginia were required to adopt those policies no later than the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.
During his time working in Cole’s office, Belotti had a hand in approving several additional pieces of legislation, including the Virginia Values Act, which prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ+ people by employers, landlords and public agencies. Cole said they also advised him to vote for Senate Bill 657, which removed the requirement that transgender people undergo surgery to change the gender marker on their birth certificate.
“Now, I know that there's institutional support for trans youth. And I played a part in building that, and that's really special,” Belotti said.
After HB145 was signed by former Gov. Ralph Northam, Belotti joined a Virginia Department of Education committee formed to craft the minimum trans-affirming policies that school boards must adopt. Those recommendations include requiring schools to take action when students are discriminated against based on their gender identity — giving students the power to decide whether their transgender identity is confidential — and require schools to respect transgender and nonbinary students’ chosen pronouns and names.
Belotti said they were largely pleased with the committee's recommendations, and that they advocated for policies requiring schools to re-examine gender-specific dress codes and uniforms.
Working toward a “better South”
The policies and legislation that Belotti has championed are facing threats thanks to recent pushes by conservatives to combat critical race theory, a perspective on history that acknowledges race and racism as a significant factor in society. The approach generally isn’t used in K-12 public schools, but it has been conflated with discourse by other disenfranchised groups working toward equality.
For example, in Stafford — where Belotti grew up — the board of supervisors voted last year to withhold funding from schools that teach CRT, according to WTOP News. And it’s not the only school board in the commonwealth facing a suit from a right-wing group over the implementation of model policies for transgender students.
Both Belotti and Cole said they’re concerned about whether the trans-affirming policies they worked to implement will last.
“There's still a lot of work that we need to do to protect our transgender and LGBTQIA students all throughout the commonwealth, at all levels. Not just students but other citizens as well,” Cole said. “I literally have no confidence in the Youngkin administration to protect the LGBTQIA community.”
But Cole said he’s optimistic about Belotti’s work in the community.
“I'm excited for the tenacity that they have. I'm excited for … the commitment that they have fighting for [the] rights of all people. And so, I definitely am looking forward to great things in their future,” Cole said.
Looking toward that future, Belotti said they plan to continue their advocacy efforts.
“I have a lot of hope for the South, because I truly believe that using our Southern values, and our history of marginalized communities, that we can create a better South,” they said. “If you want to create change, you have to start in your backyard. So, Virginia is very important to me in that way.”