Most people advocate for causes simply because they care, but Bo Belotti became an activist to survive. At the age of 14, they came out publicly as a transgender man. That same year, a long-time bully showed up to high school with a knife threatening them, Belotti says.
“That moment during my freshman year was when the level of violence I could experience as a trans person was obvious to me,” Belotti says.
When one class assigned students the task of coming up with a project that would improve the community, Belotti knew just what issue required their attention. Armed with a list of policy demands, they attended every single Stafford County School Board meeting for a year and a half.
Belotti’s demands were threefold: the school district must add gender identity and sexual orientation to the official discrimination policy, establish a representative minority advisory board, and begin anti-bias training for staff and students to promote inclusion based on race, sex, class, gender, and ability.
“I was really lucky to have a mentor who was a Black queer woman who taught me about intersectionality really early on,” they say. “I quickly realized that although trans men are practically invisible in media representation, as a white-presenting transmasculine person, I can be visible for those who can’t be. Black trans women do not have that privilege.”
After years of persistent advocacy, the school board finally acquiesced and granted all of Belotti’s demands. With a first win under their belt, Belotti decided to explore expanding civil rights as a career path and applied to Virginia Commonwealth University to study political science and gender studies.
“Once I saw someone with a mullet and blue hair on a skateboard on the prospective tour, I knew Richmond would be home,” they say.
Democratic Del. Joshua Cole served on the school district’s minority advisory board Belotti had fought so hard to create, so years later as a VCU freshman, they felt confident enough to call up the delegate and ask for a position as an intern in his office.
After working their way up into the role of a legislative aide, Belotti helped Cole draft HB145, the bill that requires all Virginia school districts to have model policies for the inclusion of transgender students. Besides Del. Danica Roem, Belotti was just one of a handful of trans people involved in crafting that landmark policy change. After the bill was signed by then Governor Northam, they traveled to speak in favor of trans-affirming policies at school districts across the commonwealth.
“That made my name in trans activism,” says Belotti. “It was the achievement that launched everything else I have done so far.”
Only 13 Virginia school districts have adopted transgender inclusive model policies to support students of all genders and sexualities. Ninety others contend that existing policies already fulfill the law's requirements.
After Hanover County hired a far-right think-tank this summer to write its model policy, which requires trans students to submit a written application, disciplinary records, a criminal background check and information from their personal physician to use a bathroom, locker room or changing facility that aligns with their gender identity, Belotti realized there was so much more work that needs to be done.
In search of a new home for their advocacy work, this fall Belotti founded the Virginia chapter of the Trans Radical Activist Network (TRAN), a California-based resource center with a handful of chapters across the country. Their first protest, a march to the capital and around downtown Richmond, nearly ended in tragedy.
“We were chanting ‘when trans people are under attack, stand up, fight back’ when a car tried to drive through the protest on Broad Street,” Belotti says. “It was incredibly scary. I’d like to believe they were just a typical asshole driver and not specifically transphobic, but I’m not sure.”
The day before Trans Day of Remembrance, TRAN held a barbecue for transgender people and allies. The attempt to create a sense of community beyond just fighting for the same cause quickly came to an end due to the mass shooting the following day at Club Q, a gay bar in Colorado Springs.
“The next afternoon we held a rally titled “Give us our roses while we’re still here,” says Belotti. “We wanted to create a space of mourning to talk about state and interpersonal violence, but we also wanted to honor trans people who are still here. A lot of us are running against a clock that is the average lifespan of a trans person in the U.S. — it’s only 36 for Black trans women.”
With more than 50 members, plans for regional chapters across the state, and a budding speakers bureau of trans Virginians, TRAN aims to not just win the hearts and minds of the broader public but also to counter the unprecedented amount of hate targeting the LGBTQ community.
Just a couple of weeks before graduating from VCU, Belotti is more focused on getting a bill to codify bodily autonomy within the Virginia Human Rights Act through the General Assembly, than a cap and gown. Such a legal provision would protect trans people and medical providers from states where gender-affirming care is being criminalized without fear of being extradited and also affirm trans people’s access to healthcare based on their bodies and not their genders.
Belotti explains that the work is often rewarding and full of joy thanks to the community connections found through TRAN and other activist channels, but the initial desire for survival that launched the advocacy is never far from the forefront of their thinking.
“Feeling terrified motivates me,” they say. “I have no desire to be the next trans person we grieve on Trans Day of Remembrance. I don’t want to be a martyr.”