A Florida state law that took effect in July 2023 prohibits public school teachers from using pronouns that do not match their sex assigned at birth.
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AV Vary became a teacher to help teenagers through the painful experience of growing up and to teach a little science along the way.
For 15 years, Vary taught in the Orlando area and Maryland. More recently, Vary taught at Florida Virtual Schoola statewide online public school for students in grades K-12.
But on October 24, Vary was fired from FVLS after refusing to change the courtesy title used on school materials and communications from “Mx.” to “Mrs”, “Mrs.” or “Miss”.
Vary is non-binary and uses these pronouns. AV Vary is not their full legal name, but they have asked to be referred to as such only out of concern for their privacy.
FLVS released a statement in response to USA TODAY’s interview request about Vary’s firing.
“As a Florida public school, FLVS is required to comply with Florida laws and regulations relating to public education. This includes laws such as Section 1000.071(3) of the Florida Statutes regarding the use of personal titles and pronouns within the Florida public school system,” the release said.
Vary’s firing comes as a lawsuit challenging Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is under appeal and districts struggle to fill vacant teaching positions.
Vary told USA TODAY in an interview that they have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the matter and are seeking an attorney. They said their fight to return to the classroom was not just for them, but also for the students.
“I’m a human being…I have feelings and my goals in life are positive. I want to see my students succeed, however they define success,” Vary said. “Yes, it’s a fight for my rights. But it’s also a fight for kindness, compassion and respect for every individual in the country.”
Florida law requires teachers to use titles and pronouns corresponding to biological sex
Documentation reviewed by USA TODAY showed that FVLS leadership asked Vary to change his courtesy title from Mx. to Mrs., Mrs. or Miss in accordance with Florida Statute 1000.071.
The law states that any public K-12 educational institution must operate under the assumption that a person’s sex is biological and unchangeable. Therefore, employees cannot provide pronouns that do not correspond to their biological sex.
The law took effect in July 2023 after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it. HB1069, which is considered an expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill of 2022. A lawsuit on behalf of Family Equality and Florida Families The challenge to the 2022 bill went to an appeals court in March 2023 after a Florida judge dismissed the original lawsuits for failing to demonstrate direct harm caused by the bill.
Vary said that before the firing, they came up with other gender-neutral suggestions for courtesy titles.
Although Vary does not hold a doctorate, “Dr.” is a gender-neutral title used by other teachers and administrators in Florida schools. But Vary said FLVS would not allow Vary to use it on the grounds that he did not have a doctorate. The school said Vary could do without a courtesy title, but she wasn’t comfortable with it.
Vary also recommends “professor,” “teacher,” and “coach” as alternatives. The school didn’t allow them either.
“Clearly, to me, FLVS is not just about following the law. There is something more,” they said.
Vary said being visibly non-binary is a safety signal for Florida students
Vary students know them as Mme Vary, Professor Vary or Mx. Vary depending on when they worked together.
When Vary started at FLVS in July 2021, they felt that “misunderstood woman” was the best way to describe their gender. They also truncated the students’ legal names, to protect their limitations as a teacher. But over time, Vary learned more about what it means to be non-binary and it resonated with them, as they don’t fully identify with the social norms of women or men.
Vary also said their decision to use Mx was more important. than to reflect their own identity. In the face of anti-LGBTQ laws passed in Florida, Vary wanted to signal to students that they were an ally.
“I needed a way for my students’ first impressions to be that I was safe, because underrepresented minority communities need people who can protect them, especially when they are teenagers,” said Vary said.
Varia worries about her colleagues facing the teacher shortage
Vary said they had never lost a job before FLVS. They turned to science in part because teachers are in high demand. They have a partner with a good salary who can help them cushion the loss of employment as they try to reintegrate.
But in the meantime, Varie worries about his colleagues.
“When I received the voicemail that I had been suspended, my first thought was, ‘Oh, my colleagues, they are now going to have a lot more students than they should. They’re going to have to put in more hours than they planned to get paid,” Vary said. “Teacher overwork starts again.”
Public schools across the country struggle to recruit teachers, science being a difficult field to staff. In Florida, general sciences and physical sciences make up two of the eight fields “high demand teacher needs” for the 2023-2024 school year.
Vary said science classes at FLVS were already waitlisted when they ended.
Lawyers told Vary case was ‘too important’
Vary said they believe school leaders tried to remain neutral in the weeks leading up to their dismissals. But their last call became heated and Vary said the school hung up on them.
“I recognize that FLVS is in a difficult position. They must follow Florida state law. At the same time, they are committed to upholding the U.S. Constitution,” Vary said. “Right now, those two things are mutually exclusive.”
Vary’s complaint with the EEOC alleges that the school discriminated against them based on their sex and gender identity.
They contacted lawyers who told them the case might be interesting, but it would be too big or too expensive to pursue. Vary also explores advocacy groups, or possibly joins others who have experienced the same thing.
“It would be unrealistic to expect any individual to shoulder this responsibility alone,” Vary said. “But with a community of like-minded individuals who believe in civil rights, I think we can go as far as we need to.”
Contributor: Brandon Girod, Pensacola News Journal; Finch Walker, Florida Today; Zachary Schermele, USA TODAY