A Florida teacher filed a complaint against their former employer after being fired for using the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” instead of “Ms.” or “Mr.” in emails and other school communications.
The teacher, who uses the name AV Vary over their legal name, taught high school science at Florida Virtual School, an online public school, until Oct. 24. Vary filed a complaint Wednesday with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging the school discriminated against them based on their gender identity and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Vary said the pronouns they use and their birth-assigned sex have nothing to do with how they teach physics.
“They are so far from related,” Vary told NBC News on Friday. “Getting fired for this, it’s absolute garbage.”
Neither the Florida Virtual School nor the Florida Department of Education immediately returned requests for comment. The Florida Virtual School said in a statement to USA Today: “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.”
Vary said they began using “Mx.” at the start of the school year to send a welcoming message to students amid a slew of state legislation that targeted LGBTQ people and topics in schools.
In March 2022, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Initially, the measure prohibited “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
DeSantis signed an expanded version of the law in May that prohibits such instruction from prekindergarten through eighth grade and restricts health education in sixth through 12th grade. The expanded measure also prohibits employees from sharing their pronouns or titles with students if those pronouns and titles don’t align with their birth sex.
DeSantis defended the expanded law during a press conference in May, saying teachers and students would “never be forced to declare pronouns in school or be forced to use pronouns not based on biological sex.”
“We never did this through all of human history until like, what, two weeks ago?” DeSantis said of people using pronouns that are different from those associated with their assigned sex. “Now this is something, they’re having third graders declare pronouns. We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida. It’s not happening here.”
Students previously addressed Vary with the honorifics “Mrs.” and “Professor,” Vary said.
“When this legislation came out, it was important to me to signal to my marginalized students that I was still a safe place, I was still a safe adult to talk to,” Vary said. “Because I wasn’t allowed to talk to them about that, but I needed them to know that if they needed someone to confide in, that I was a safe person to talk to.”
Vary said they knew using “Mx.” could potentially lead to legal issues because of the new law, but that they wanted to show their students they were an ally. Vary said they also realized this year that they are nonbinary and that they have never felt like they fit into traditional gender norms.
“When I switched to ‘Mx.,’ my existing students knew because of the way my email signature was and the way my homepage displayed my title and the way I signed my text messages,” said Vary, who taught virtually. “I didn’t announce that I was changing. I didn’t talk about being nonbinary. I just changed it, and no one said anything. I think we don’t give young people enough credit for their adaptability. They all just switched, and it was OK.”
Vary said Principal KJ Anderson at Florida Virtual School initially accepted the new title, which they added to their email signature and other school communications over the summer. However, on Aug. 28, in an email shared with NBC News that Vary said was from Anderson, Anderson told Vary that staff email signatures should display a name and no courtesy title, and that for Vary’s teacher announcement page and outward-facing communication, they were expected to use a “standard courtesy title,” such as “Mrs.,” “Ms.” or “Mr.” Anderson added that Vary could choose to not use a title on their announcement page and could just use their name.
Vary responded that they would like to discuss the matter when they returned from vacation, and Anderson agreed to that, but asked Vary to change the title by the end of the day on Aug. 30. Vary said they didn’t change the title.
When they returned to school and met with Anderson on Sept. 13, they said they told him that they weren’t comfortable using a gendered courtesy title, but they would consider using an alternative gender-neutral one, such as “professor,” “teacher” or “coach.”
Two days later, Vary said they had a meeting with Anderson and multiple employees from human resources, where they were provided with a directive that outlined their actions so far and requested that they change their courtesy title by 5 p.m. that day.
The directive, which Vary provided to NBC News, stated that Vary had to change their courtesy title to comply with the Florida law that bars teachers from sharing their pronouns and titles with students if they don’t align with their birth sex. Anderson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vary did not change the title and said they were suspended on Sept. 15. They said they exchanged emails with human resources about using various gender-neutral titles, like professor, but the school said professor was a title only used in college environments and not in K-12 schools, “despite the fact that I have been using it in my career for the entire 15 years that I’ve been working,” Vary said.
They were terminated on Oct. 24 because they would not change the title. They said they filed the EEOC complaint because their right to their preferred title in line with their gender identity is a civil rights issue. They also have the privilege to take on a potential legal battle while unemployed because they have a partner with a stable job, they said.
“I have the ability to take the time right now to fight the fight,” Vary said. “There are so many teachers who do not have the financial stability to take any time off. I am privileged enough to not need to live paycheck to paycheck right now. What good is privilege if you can’t use it to help others?”
Teachers in Florida and other states have increasingly come under public scrutiny amid political battles over what content is appropriate for children — in library books, history classes and health classes.
Last year, a Florida middle school teacher was fired after students asked her questions about her sexuality, and she told them she is pansexual. Another Florida teacher resigned in June after she was investigated for showing a Disney movie to her class that included a gay character. And a Georgia teacher was fired in August after officials said she improperly read a book on gender identity to her fifth grade class.
Vary said people have asked them what their students said when they told them about their new title, “Mx.” But Vary reiterated that they didn’t verbally explain this to their students — rather, they changed their honorific to “Mx.” and the students simply accepted the change.
“There’s all this worry that teachers are going to indoctrinate students into some secret society,” Vary said. “I’m telling you, we do not have time. If there is any extra time, we’re following up on students’ lives, making sure they’re OK, making sure their needs are met. Have they eaten in the last 24 hours? Do they have a safe place to lay their head at night? There is not a thing in the world that could convince me to bring my personal life into the classroom. I just don’t do it. I don’t have time and I don’t have desire.”
For more from NBC Out, sign up for our weekly newsletter.