SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today is Transgender Day of Visibility. The Human Rights Campaign calls it a time to celebrate transgender people around the globe and the courage it takes to live openly and authentically. NPR has been reporting on the challenges transgender teachers face in their schools and communities. A national survey conducted by NPR Ed found many transgender teachers experience discrimination on the job. But it turns out, coming out as transgender in school can also have some rewards. From member station KUT in Austin, Claire McInerny has the story of one teacher who found his commitment to teaching strengthened.
CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: When he graduated college, Mario Suarez knew two things for sure about his future - he was going to be a teacher and he was going to transition from female to male. Right after graduation, he got a job as a high school math teacher in Austin.
MARIO SUAREZ: I was already living outside of the professional life as a male. So I - the next step, you know, through my therapist she recommended - it's, like, well, maybe it's time to come out in the workplace.
MCINERNY: But because his workplace was a high school, that meant he wouldn't only be coming out to his co-workers but the hundreds of students and their parents who cycled through the school each year. When Suarez spoke with his principal about his transition...
SUAREZ: He asked me, how would you feel if you start fresh somewhere else? Like, he kind of wanted me to go to - transfer to a different school.
MCINERNY: Suarez didn't want to do that. He liked his colleagues and the students he worked with. Hearing his boss react that way made him nervous. He said other teachers expressed support to this school's administration, so Suarez ended up staying, transitioning and starting his second year in the classroom as Mr. Suarez. He said the first year, kids would ask a lot of questions, but it all came from a place of curiosity and not malice. A few years later, Mario started dating. And eventually, he met Guadalupe Marquez-Velarde.
GUADALUPE MARQUEZ-VELARDE: We had these, like, online profile. And I - like, I read some of the interesting stuff. But I skipped the bottom where he talks about being transgender.
SUAREZ: By the time Mario brought it up with Guadalupe, she was already falling for him.
MARQUEZ-VELARDE: I guess it's always been my philosophy that you fall for the person and not I guess their external appearance.
SUAREZ: It was love before they knew it and they married soon after. As they started talking about their future life together, Mario was also thinking about his professional future. He loved teaching, but he also loved how transitioning in the classroom taught him so much.
SUAREZ: And then that made me started to realize, like, it's not a big deal for them. Like, you can be who you are. And I started noticing that over the years working at that school is that it wasn't about the kids. It was the grown-ups that weren't always OK with it.
MCINERNY: Mario started to think more about those grown-ups - his co-workers, his principals and the parents. He also thought about his own childhood. Growing up in a small town in southwest Texas, he was never exposed to transgender people. It wasn't until college that he even had language to explain what he felt for so many years. He realized he wanted to shift his teaching away from high school algebra and toward helping K-12 teachers work with LGBT youth. So he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Texas A&M where Guadalupe was doing her graduate work.
SUAREZ: One of the biggest reasons I'm here is because there's little research on LGBT youth, particularly trans and gender-nonconforming and intersexed youth in the classroom.
MCINERNY: Mario's research is focused on how K-12 teachers can discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom and support those students. He wants all kids, including those realizing their sexual orientation or gender identity at a young age, to have the same opportunities he's had. He's also having a more immediate impact, something Guadalupe sees happening over and over at A&M.
MARQUEZ-VELARDE: Because of him, a lot of people that probably would have never met a transgender person before have been able to not just meet him but become his colleague, his friend, and sort of get a broad view of what it means in terms of gender identity.
MCINERNY: One of these colleagues is Kim Wright. Before attending A&M as a graduate student, she taught middle school in a small, Texas town. She says working in small, conservative areas, she didn't meet a lot of people with radically different life experiences. Mario changed that.
KIM WRIGHT: He's taught me so much about what it feels like and looks like and doesn't feel like and doesn't look like to live between lots of different worlds.
MCINERNY: Wright teaches future educators, and she often invites Mario to guest lecture. He speaks to these soon-to-be teachers about LGBTQ issues that may come up in their classrooms.
WRIGHT: He's talking to them about issues that they have not really thought about, likely, before.
MCINERNY: Being so public about his gender identity has brought more awareness to trans issues at A&M. But this also carries some anxiety. Guadalupe says she worries when he doesn't come home right after his class or she doesn't hear from him for long periods of time.
MARQUEZ-VELARDE: I have friends who are gay and lesbian. They've been through hate crimes in this town. They've been beaten up. They've been assaulted in public spaces. So I was definitely fearful that he would be in some sort of danger.
MCINERNY: But to Mario, it's important to keep telling his story in the hopes that teachers will open their minds about teaching LGBTQ youth.
SUAREZ: These are children that are just trying to be themselves. And they're trying to live their life as who they know they are, but our society needs to shift in that way.
MCINERNY: He thinks teachers should help initiate that shift. For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny in Austin.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAKING AIDA'S "BLUE SHELLED")