Florida teacher who was fired for using gender-neutral honorific ‘Mx.’ sues the state

A nonbinary Florida teacher who was fired for using the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” is accusing the state education department in a lawsuit of discrimination.

AV Schwandes taught science at the Florida Virtual School, an online public high school, until Oct. 24. Schwandes, who uses “they/them” pronouns, started using “Mx.” at the start of the school year in their email signature. They never actually had a conversation with students about the change, they said, adding that students just started using the new honorific once they updated their email signature. 

Schwandes, who also goes by AV Vary, was fired when the school told them they had to change the honorific to comply with Florida’s Parental Rights in Education act, what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. 

When the law was initially signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in March 2022, it prohibited “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The measure was then expanded in May to prohibit such classroom instruction from prekindergarten through eighth grade, restrict health education in sixth through 12th grade, and bar teachers and students from using pronouns and titles that don’t align with their birth sex. 

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Schwandes and two other Florida teachers, both transgender women, allege that the part of the law that bars them from using pronouns and titles consistent with their gender identities discriminates against them on the basis of sex and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“I lost my job, and maybe my career, because Florida lawmakers don’t want maturing young adults to know that I exist,” Schwandes said in a statement Wednesday. “As a high school teacher, I should not have to pretend to be someone I’m not simply because I don’t ascribe to someone else’s rigid ideas of gender. Tolerance is a two-way street. Just as I respect the faith-based beliefs of others, my civil rights need to be respected because I am an American, and I do exist.”

The Florida Department of Education and the Florida Virtual School did not immediately return requests for comment regarding the lawsuit. 

Last month, in response to questions about Schwandes’ firing, the Florida Virtual School said in an emailed statement: “As a Florida public school, FLVS is obligated to follow Florida laws and regulations pertaining to public education. This includes laws … pertaining to the use of Personal Titles and Pronouns within Florida’s public school system.”

Katie Wood, one of the other plaintiffs, transitioned in 2020 and has taught math at Lennard High School in Hillsborough County since the 2021-2022 school year, according to the lawsuit. Jane Doe, the third plaintiff, came out as trans in 2021 and has been working as a teacher in Lee County Schools since the 2017-2018 school year.

Both teachers said their districts were supportive of their identities, and they used the titles “Ms.” when introducing themselves and “she/her” pronouns in their classrooms and syllabi, according to the lawsuit. However, under the Florida parental rights law, they are now prohibited from doing so because their birth sexes were male. They are also barred from correcting students and other teachers who address them using “Mr.” or “he” and “him” pronouns. 

Wood has asked her students to call her “Teacher Wood,” but, according to the lawsuit, the nongendered title makes Wood feel stigmatized, since no other teachers at her school use it and it “does not come naturally to her when describing herself.”

“Going by Teacher has disrupted Ms. Wood’s ability to teach and distracted her students,” the suit says. The “risk that she could lose her teaching job and license” for violating the law and Hillsborough County School Board policy, which has enforced the law, “has caused Ms. Wood great anxiety and distracts her during work.”

The Hillsborough County School Board and the Lee County School Board did not immediately return requests for comment.

When DeSantis signed the expanded Parental Rights in Education act in May, he said that Florida would not do “the pronoun Olympics,” and that teachers and students would “never be forced to declare pronouns in school or be forced to use pronouns not based on biological sex.”

The plaintiffs are represented by two civil rights groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Southern Legal Counsel, and by San Francisco-based private law firm Altshuler Berzon, LLP.

“Educators serve their students and communities best when working in safe spaces where they are respected, valued, and allowed to be themselves,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Stigmatizing trans and nonbinary people not only undermines educators but also harms and isolates all students. Teaching at a public school shouldn’t mean denying or contradicting core beliefs or, most importantly, losing oneself entirely. These unlawful statutes have distracted and harmed teachers who want to teach.”

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