Alumna Jessica Belmont stands out with ‘extraordinary distinction’

Jessica in front of the W in graduation regalia

By Elisabeth Schnebele  

Alumna Jessica Belmont ’22 was told from an early age that it wasn’t okay to be herself — intersex, queer and trans. She was told this by her church, her school and even her family. “Growing up, I had adults tell me that all that stuff about wanting to be a girl was just the devil talking to me,” she said. “That kind of screwed me up for a long time.” 

She spent most of her early adulthood in hiding, ashamed by her identities. Eventually, however, she put aside that sense of shame. “I realized that those parts about me aren’t ugly or meant to be hidden. They are beautiful and ought to be shared,” she said. 

This shift inspired Belmont to enroll at the University of Washington Bothell to complete the bachelor’s degree she had started decades ago and to help other members of the LGBTQIA community find similar love and acceptance. While at the University, Belmont helped to create affirming education on gender and sexuality by suggesting updates to textbooks, offering alternate learning materials and revising sexual assault prevention programming. 

“Jessica embodies so much of what the University of Washington stands for: integrity, commitment to the values of equity and justice, humble engagement with others, and a commitment to engage in rigorous, transformative research that has the potential to reduce harm and promote justice,” said Dr. Lauren Lichty, associate professor in UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. “In my nearly 20-year career collaborating with undergraduate and graduate students, Jessica stands out with extraordinary distinction.” 

In recognition of Belmont’s contributions inside the classroom, on campus and in the community, she has been named one of the UW’s 2022 Husky 100 recipients

From harm to healing 

Each year, the UW recognizes 100 undergraduate and graduate students from the Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma campuses who are making the most of their time at the University. The recipients actively connect what happens inside and outside of the classroom, applying what they learn to make a difference in the lives of others. Belmont is one of 11 students from UW Bothell recognized this last academic year

Jessica with award

Alumna Jessica Belmont '22 with her Husky 100 medal

Belmont graduated in June with degrees in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies and in American & Ethnic Studies with a cumulative grade point average of 4.0. 

Of all the possible professions her education opened up to her, Belmont decided to pursue a career in ministry. It may seem a surprising choice given the harm she experienced in her church community growing up, but Belmont said that’s part of the reason she wants to be a church leader — to prevent harm and facilitate healing. 

“I have always been invested in helping people get through their pain and grief,” she said. “I find it rewarding to make a positive difference in someone’s life, and that’s what I plan to do as a minister. Hopefully on an individual level but also a global one as I work toward radical acceptance of queer folks within the congregation and society as a whole.” 

Advocating for change 

Recognizing that the first step to acceptance is understanding, Belmont started advocating in the classroom. Her first quarter at UW Bothell she took Introduction to Human Sexuality with Lichty and quickly noticed concerning content in the textbook. “As an adult trans woman, I knew the language in the textbook wasn’t right,” she said, “and I also knew it would do harm to young trans people who read it and may not know the language isn’t okay. 

“Doing something about it is part of my ministry. I don’t want trans kids who have just come out of high school to read this and think, ‘Wow, even my textbook thinks I’m a freak,’” Belmont said. “I am working to interrupt that harm and replace it with something that will tell them they are normal and natural.” 

This concern for others led to Belmont becoming a leader in the classroom and helping to make space for other minoritized students to feel seen and heard. Inspired by her openness and bravery, two other students came forward, and together they started a change-focused research project where they reviewed academic textbooks and then contacted the authors and publishers to make the case for updating some of the language. 

“Jessica’s kind leadership and reflective queer, feminist praxis was a steady gift to this research team,” Lichty said. “As we examined content that was painful and undermined each of our identities, Jessica remained a steady, compassionate, fierce advocate for change.” 

Inviting new learning 

Belmont and Lichty continued working on the project after the class ended and began collaborating with another team of LGBTQIA+ undergraduate and doctoral researchers at Yale University. In June 2021, they presented their research at the biennial conference of the Society for Community Research and Action, a division of the American Psychological Association. 

The conference brings together people from around the world to engage in conversations about recent developments in community research and action. “Our national conference presentation was well attended, and multiple professors reached out afterward to share how moved they were by Jessica’s work specifically,” Lichty said. “My colleague made a point to highlight Jessica as a standout speaker and advocate for change.” 

Since the conference, Lichty and Belmont have met with two of the textbook authors who, after hearing their feedback, committed to making their textbooks more inclusive for trans and intersex students. 

While in another of Lichty’s courses that focused on gender-based violence on college campuses, Belmont also reviewed the sexual violence prevention program created by one of UW Bothell’s community partners. “Jessica provided critical analysis and reframing of practices in a way that guided impactful feedback,” Lichty said. “Her work led to a series of important listening sessions, a shift in staffing and a subsequent acquisition of a small grant to support their work. 

“Her insight into trans and intersex survivorship — and willingness to challenge and invite new learning — is a unique gift to our campus and community.” 

Impacting hundreds 

Since working with Belmont, Lichty has completely revamped their course content, abandoning a text they had used for eight years. “She inspired me to institute changes that will continue to build a more affirming, inclusive classroom,” Lichty said. “I cannot emphasize enough the significance of Jessica’s impact on my professional practice, which already extends into the lives and learning of hundreds of other UW students.” 

Looking to the future, Belmont said she hopes to use her career in ministry to help people move past shame and to gain more self-confidence. “People carry so much shame, and a lot of it isn’t theirs,” she said.

“An important part of helping someone to heal is to let them know they can put that stuff down. I often say that you have to stop inflicting the wound on yourself before it’s going to heal.” 

Belmont also said that that Husky 100 award feels like validation that she is on the right path. “To have that vote of confidence that yes, you are one of the 100 people that we want to see go out and make change in the world — that’s pretty incredible,” she said. “And it’s what I intend to do.” 

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