On Dec. 28, 2014, Leelah Alcorn died after walking into traffic on a highway near her hometown of Kings Mills, Ohio. The 17-year-old identified as transgender, and in a suicide note published online, which became national news, Alcorn wrote:

"The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren't treated the way I was, they're treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something."

Devon Shanley read in those words a personal call to action. He is a transgender man teaching seventh-grade English in New York City. He resolved to become more vocal as a teacher and activist. While realizing that some trans people do not want to be out, and for others being out may threaten their safety, he believes, "this is what is killing us, this silencing."

Awareness of gender diversity has been growing. And schools in particular have been a battleground for gender rights. In interviews with 15 individuals, and in an NPR Ed survey of dozens more trans and gender-nonconforming educators around the country, teachers like Shanley told us they are becoming more visible, more active, more organized.

They are marching, writing lesson plans, changing the signs on bathroom doors and, alongside their students, pushing colleagues and school administrators and elected officials to improve awareness of gender issues.

Rates of suicide, homelessness and bullying are all higher among transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming youth. The current administration has formally stated that it won't consider discrimination complaints from these youth based on access to facilities like bathrooms.

Many trans teachers NPR spoke to for this article told us they were bullied as students, and they feel that their work in the classroom can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

A quick note on the terms we're using here. Gender nonconforming is an umbrella term that can refer to anyone whose appearance or behavior doesn't fit stereotypes of the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender and gender nonconforming people may identify as men or women. Or they may use terms like nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transmasculine or transfeminine, or simply trans. They may use a variety of pronouns: he, she, they, ze. They may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, queer or any other possibility. Cisgender, meanwhile, refers to those whose gender identity does match their sex assigned at birth.

Forming a Network

Across the country in San Francisco, around the same time that Shanley felt his call to action, a former teacher named Harper Keenan, also a transgender man and an education Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, experienced the losses of some trans people he knew personally to suicide.

He realized, "We have to do a better job of making sure that transgender people aren't isolated. And I thought about my own work as an educator. Teaching is a pretty isolating job." And, he says, it complicates matters that teaching is one of the most gendered professions.

Teachers of younger students in particular are overwhelmingly women. Schools, meanwhile, Keenan points out, often sort students into boys and girls — when lining up, in the bathroom and locker rooms, in sports and phys ed. These are all points of friction for those who don't conform.

He posted on Facebook to start a professional and social network for anyone who worked with students in K-12 and whose identity did not "easily fit" into the gender binary. They became known as the Transgender Educators Network. Before they knew it, they had around 200 members and chapters that now meet in five places: the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore/Washington area, the Pacific Northwest and Minneapolis.

Chris Smith, a high school teacher and member of the New York chapter of TEN, says they come together to discuss issues like: "how to have conversations with your students. A little bit of safety. What school districts to avoid, what states to avoid. Some emotional support. The best time to come out."

As a group, TEN members have marched in rallies, written op-eds and submitted a "friend of the court" brief in support of Gavin Grimm, the Virginia high school student who sued for the right to use the bathroom that conformed with his gender identity.

Idaho’s transgender community won a huge legal victory this week after a federal judge in Boise stuck down the state’s policy banning transgender people from changing the assigned gender on their birth certificates.

Idaho now has until April 6 to begin considering applications for people who wish to change their birth certificates to accurately reflect their gender identity.

The ruling, issued Monday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale, was in response to a lawsuit that two transgender women filed last year after the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) rejected their applications to change the gender on their birth certificates. Both women said that being identified as a male on their birth certificates has led to discrimination.

One of the woman, identified only by her initials F.V., said that a social security office employee called her a “tranny” after seeing her birth certificate. The other plaintiff, Dani Martin, said she had a similarly distressing experience at a local DMV.

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, almost one in three transgender individuals who showed an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were “verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted.”

In her ruling, Dale agreed that such discrepancies “can create risks to the health and safety of transgender people,” who the judge noted already face disproportionately high levels of discrimination. As such, barring transgender individuals from changing their birth certificates to reflect their preferred gender is “unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Dale wrote.

Though applications aren’t guaranteed to be approved, Dale said that “such applications must be reviewed and considered through a constitutionally-sound approval process.”

If an application is approved, the reissued birth certificate cannot have a record of any name changes or amendments to the assigned gender. This is to protect transgender individuals from possible discrimination.

Niki Forbing-Orr, a spokeswoman for IDHW, told the Idaho Statesman on Tuesday that the agency was reviewing the court order and “determining our next steps.”

As the Statesman noted, officials at the department had previously acknowledged that their current rules about birth certificate changes were “unfair” but that they would need a court order to change the policy. 

Idaho is currently one of only four states that does not currently permit transgender people to change their birth certificate gender markers.

State officials in Idaho “must begin accepting applications made by transgender people to change the sex listed on their birth certificates on or before April 6,” a federal court ruled this week, finding the state’s current policy unconstitutionally discriminates against trans people.

Applications to change gender markers on birth certificates, according to the ruling, “must be reviewed and considered through a constitutionally-sound approval process,” and “upon approval, any reissued birth certificate must not include record of amendment to the listed sex.” In the case of a name change, “any reissued birth certificate must not include record of the name change.”

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Peter Renn, who worked on the case, said Idaho “previously had a policy of categorically refusing to correct the gender markers of transgender people and the court unequivocally said that is unconstitutional.”

Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ legal organization, filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of two transgender women, F.V. (identified only by her initials) and Dani Martin, each of whom experienced discrimination in the process of attempting to change their identity documents, according to the lawsuit. Upon showing her birth certificate at a social security office, F.V. said she was met with epithets including “tranny” and “faggot.” At an Idaho DMV, Martin said she had to insist upon being treated as a woman, because her birth certificate did not reflect her gender identity.

Idaho, along with Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas and Puerto Rico, currently do not allow transgender individuals to change the gender markers on their birth certificates. The remaining 46 states, along with the District of Columbia, permit changes to birth certificate gender markers, and countries such as Argentina and Denmark have passed national legislation allowing transgender adults to change their identity documents based solely on self-identification.

This week’s ruling, Renn said, “moves Idaho into line with the rest of America and jettisons an archaic and unjust policy.”

“The government has conceded that they have no basis for withholding from transgender people that basic tool that they need to go through life,” he added.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho gave the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) 30 days to come up with a policy in compliance with the court’s ruling. Renn said he expects the government to fully comply with the court’s ruling.

The state’s existing policy, Renn stressed, is “harmful because it outs transgender people.”

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, an estimated 10 percent of respondents had their name and gender accurately depicted on all their identity documents, and more than two thirds (68 percent) said that none of their identity documents accurately reflected their gender identity. Almost one third (32 percent) of those surveyed who presented a form of identification that did not match their gender identity had been verbally or physically assaulted, denied benefits or services or asked to leave.

“This case is as much about safety and privacy as it is about equality and nondiscrimination,” Renn said, adding that Idaho’s current policy “jeopardizes the safety of transgender people.”

There is also a personal dimension to the victory, Renn added. “A birth certificate is more than a piece of paper. It is government recognition of who you are, and it is significant that Idaho is recognizing the gender identity of trans people,” he said. “That means a lot on a personal level.”

F.V., one of the plaintiffs in the case, said she is “excited to be among the first to update their birth certificates” in Idaho.

“I am thrilled and proud that my own state will be updating their policies, even though it required a court order to do so,” she said.

Gia, a 14-year-old transgender student, wanted a fresh start at her new campus as she prepared to move from middle school to high school. To get the process going, she wrote a letter to the entire school announcing her plans to transition to living as a girl.

“I decided to do that because I didn’t want to just go out into my school and surprise everybody, because I didn’t feel like it was prepping enough for what was going on,” Gia says. “And I just felt writing a letter would inform everybody and give everybody time to think and reflect on this before they saw me for the first time as a girl.”

Gia is now raising the visibility of transgender teens through the GenderCoolprogram, co-founded by Jennifer Grosshandler and Gearah Goldstein.

In Coming Out Stories, a new video series from PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly, 16 LGBTQ people from all walks of life share how they opened up to friends, family and the world — and how their lives changed.

One inspiration for the series: the new movie Love, Simon (in theaters March 16), a moving comedy-drama about a gay teen (Nick Robinson) struggling with how to come out to his friends and parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel). Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti (the producer behind TV’s Riverdale and Supergirl) tells his own coming out story in the series, as does costar Keiynan Lonsdale.

Others sharing their stories include Modern Family actor Jesse Tyler FergusonGrey’s Anatomy actress Sara Ramirez, retired NBA player Jason Collins, social media star Tyler Oakley and Brooke Guinan, a New York City firefighter who is transgender.

PEOPLE and EW partnered with GLSEN, a nonprofit that fights to make schools safe for all kids, to create Coming Out Stories. See all the hilarious and heartbreaking tales at people.com/comingoutstories or on PeopleTV (download the app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device).

There is a moment in the Chilean film "A Fantastic Woman" when a transgender singer stands onstage and lifts her voice, an unwavering mezzo-soprano that rises above the cruelties and prejudices she's encountered in a country that has scorned her identity, ridiculed her love and chipped away at her pride.

Sebastián Lelio's story, which won the Academy Award for foreign-language film, is an unrepentant fable in a time when transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community are demanding wider rights in countries, including Chile, that have treated them as deviants and curiosities. The film follows Marina (played by transgender actress Daniela Vega) in a quiet rebellion for dignity against condescension and relentless humiliation.

"I'm on Jupiter. I can't believe that this happened," Lelio said of his Oscar. "It is a film that has managed to contribute to a necessary and urgent conversation."

"A Fantastic Woman" opens with Marina and her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) out on a date in Santiago. Things turn tragic when Orlando falls ill and dies. Marina grieves but also endures the scorn — both pointed and subtle — of a woman who is held in suspicion by Orlando's family and the police. She moves through the story stunned but with the accustomed indignation that comes with being "the other." In one scene, investigators subject her to a strip search, embarrassing her in the glare of florescent light.

Orlando's ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), tells Marina with disdain: "When I look at you. I don't know what I'm seeing."

But she is unbroken; each slight brings a renewed resolve that has made the movie a bellwether for the transgender movement.

The first film from Chile to win an Academy Award in the foreign category, "A Fantastic Woman" is Lelio's latest meditation of those at the edges. His 2013 international hit "Gloria" explored similar themes in the story of a middle-aged divorcee riding the joys, insecurities and indignities of a new romance. But the stakes are higher and the redemption more socially poignant for civil rights and gender equality in "Woman."

"I didn't make a casting decision as a fascist decision but as an act of freedom," said Lelio of his choice of Vega to star. "Casting is an art. The presence of Daniela brought a quality to the story that adds a layer of complexity and beauty that I think a cisgender actor would not have been capable of bringing."

He added: "I never thought that [casting her] was going to be that important, in the sense of how the film is perceived. I've been very surprised and happy that it's become one of the most important artistic gestures of the movie. If it can keep expanding the horizons of our thinking, [it's] so welcomed."

Vega, whose portrayal of Marina, a waitress and a singer, was widely praised, said the film was a lesson against discrimination in an often unaccepting world: "I hope that everybody watches the movie and sees that it's been produced from a place of love and it's been produced to raise a lot of questions. One of them: What is left for the next generation? A better world or not?"

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