Florida teacher terminated for using gender-neutral title

(Photo by Jeremy Williams)

ORLANDO | Central Florida educator AV Vary says they were terminated Oct. 24 from their position as a science teacher with Florida Virtual School because they refused to stop using the gender-neutral title Mx. (usually pronounced Miks or Meks) in interactions and correspondence with school faculty and students.

Vary, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, has been with FLVS for just over two years, and up until a few months ago, used the title of professor instead of a gender-specific one.

“I have used that title on and off my entire career but with the new laws that went into place in Florida recently, I wanted my marginalized students to know that I was a safe space,” Vary says.

Vary is referring to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which was first signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March 2022, banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in K-3rd grade. Earlier this year, the Florida Board of Education expanded the law to include all classrooms through grade 12. That’s when Vary shifted to using Mx.

“At that point I wasn’t really out as nonbinary but my whole teaching career I’ve been the sponsor of the LGBTQ club, in whatever school I was working in, I was always a sponsor because I think it’s really important to support our marginalized communities,” they said. “So I shifted as a more obvious sign to my students that this is a safe space.”

Vary says that when they made the switch, they even talked it over with the principal and that no issues were raised to them.

“I thought great, FLVS is gonna be the good guys,” they said. “They’re gonna ignore this and do what’s right for students. Then a couple months later, my principal said you have to change it.”

Vary says they told the principal that they would not be changing it as it is the appropriate title for how they identify.

“I’m an independent adult and I have the right of free speech to say this is what I want to be called and then it really escalated from there very quickly,” they said.

Vary’s first communication with the school in regard to changing their title was Aug. 28, days before Vary’s was to begin a weeklong vacation.

“In my communication with them, I said no I won’t change it and I’d like to talk to you more about this after I get back from vacation.”

Vary’s vacation ended Sept. 8 and by Sept. 15, they were placed on a suspension.

“I was suspended because I violated the directive to change my courtesy title to a female courtesy title,” Vary says. “I was directed to change it to Ms., Mrs. or Miss because Florida state statute 1000.071 says that anyone teaching anybody in K-12 cannot use a courtesy title or pronoun that does not indicate their sex assigned at birth.”

While that Florida statute is being used against them, Vary states that FLVS is not enforcing it equally with other teachers.

“They’re enforcing it with me because I use Mx. but they’re not enforcing it with anybody using doctor. Doctor is a gender-neutral courtesy title, and if I had a PhD. I’d be permitted to use it,” they said. “Clearly they’re not enforcing the law equally, they’re enforcing it either with just me or with just the Mx. courtesy title, I don’t know.”

After Vary was suspended, they began a discussion with FLVS human resources on what titles were appropriate to use.

“I asked about doctor, professor, teacher, like maybe I could be Teacher Vary. Nope, even coach. I was vetoed on all of those,” they said. “Even though I have been using professor professionally for years, they said professor is not used in K-12 so I couldn’t use it.”

Vary asked to see FLVS’ policy, guideline or directive that prevents anyone from using any of the gender-neutral titles they suggested. They said that FLVS stated that there was no written policy however they were not allowed to use any of them.

On Oct. 24, Vary received an email from FLVS HR asking them to join a conference call where they were terminated.

“I got yelled at by HR, they actually yelled at me for asking questions and got very tense and terse with me and ended up hanging up on me,” Vary says. “I’m on the call, trying to have a clear head but this is hard for me. Obviously, I’m feeling indignant that this is happening, but they’re HR. They’re job is to be calm and have a level head, but it didn’t happen that way.”

Vary received a letter the same day advising them they were terminated. In the letter, FLVS states that they “appreciate your contributions to the organization,” adding that even after termination they are required to “abide by the terms of your signed employment agreement.” The letter is signed by Jillian Cleek, FLVS HR’s senior manager. What does not appear in the letter is the reason for Vary’s termination.

“I was terminated and I have tried fruitlessly to get the reason for termination in writing,” Vary says. “I’ve emailed the two HR contacts probably three or four times since Oct. 24.”

Vary adds that their last email bounced back as undeliverable, pointing to the fact that FLVS HR blocked Vary’s email.

Watermark has reached out to FLVS’ HR department and will update the story with its response if and when we receive one.

For Vary’s part, they have begun speaking with attorneys about a possible wrongful termination lawsuit and have contacted both the U.S. Department of Justice’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the HR Florida State Council, the state affiliate for the Society for Human Resource Management.

“I have filed an inquiry with both of those organizations and those are going forward,” they said. “I also looked for lawyers, talked to a lot of lawyers, and the response that I got from individual law firms was your case has merit, but it’s too big for us to take on. It’s a civil rights thing, it’s fighting Florida and that’s gonna be very expensive.”

Vary adds that they have reached out to the Florida chapter of the ACLU and heard back on Nov. 2 from the Southern Legal Council, who are interested in talking with them.

“Generally, I’m a pretty private, introverted person but this is an opportunity to do what’s right — right for my students, right for other people in my situation who don’t have the privilege that I have,” Vary says. “I can do that. I can speak up, I can scream at the top of my lungs. I am very strong voiced. I know that what’s happening is not right and a lot of other people know that too. So let’s do something about that.”

Along with building support and assistance in their fight, Vary is also calling on any Florida teachers who are in or have been in the same boat as them to reach out.

“Call me, email me if our situations are similar because we can band together and fight this,” they said. “I know I chose to fight this fight. I was given the option many times to just change my courtesy title back to a female one and sweep it under the rug. I chose to fight this fight because I believe it’s important. I believe that civil rights are being violated and I don’t think that’s okay.”

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