ORLANDO — A Florida Virtual School physics teacher who identifies as non-binary was fired last month for using a gender-neutral courtesy title in class materials, which the school said violated a new Florida law that prohibits teachers from sharing “personal titles and pronouns” that do not correspond to their sex.
AV Vary was told the title Mx. was a violation of the new law, according to school documents that Vary shared with The Orlando Sentinel.
Vary, who only recently identified as non-binary rather than female, received a Sept. 15 written directive from the school that said Ms., Mrs. or Miss were the acceptable courtesy titles. Vary, 43, refused to change titles and was terminated on Oct. 24, according to a letter sent from the school.
“Obviously, I’m not OK with that,” Vary said. “I think it’s a direct result of my gender identity.”
Now, Vary has contacted attorneys, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is looking to to challenge state law. Vary, who now uses they/them pronouns, said they view the law as unfair and unconstitutional.
With a husband who earns a good salary, “I can fight this fight. I can be unemployed for a little while,” said Vary, who asked to be identified by the middle name they’ve used professionally for years to protect from contact by a childhood abuser.
“I feel very strongly in standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” Vary said, adding other teachers may be in the same position but unable to challenge the law.
The virtual school, often dubbed FLVS, is Florida’s statewide, online public school, offering classes to thousands of students across the state. A spokeswoman confirmed Vary was no longer an employee, but she said the school does not comment on the reasons for a termination.
“As a Florida public school, FLVS is obligated to follow Florida laws and regulations pertaining to public education,” said Laura Neff-Henderson in an email. “This includes laws such as section 1000.071(3) of the Florida Statutes pertaining to the use of Personal Titles and Pronouns within Florida’s public school system.”
In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an expansion of what critics call Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, which bans instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity and that foes argued marginalized and targeted LGBTQ students and school staff. The 2023 version included rules about personal titles and pronouns.
DeSantis said those rules would protect children from “gender identity politics in schools.” Republican lawmakers also said the bill shielded students from difficult or mature topics.
“It’s actually allowing them to be children,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican, during a debate last spring.
But Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani, who opposed the legislation, said Vary’s firing from FLVS highlights the reason critics were so concerned.
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“The fact that being your authentic self is basically illegal in Florida and leads to your termination, it sets a really unsettling precedent,” she said.
That it occurred during an ongoing teacher shortage made it all the more upsetting, Eskamani added. “In an environment where we have a teacher shortage, it’s pretty ridiculous to terminate teachers over something like this.”
Vary was starting a third year at FLVS and had previously taught at Orange County Public Schools and in Maryland, they said. They said they had no other employment issues at FLVS nor at any other school during a 15-year career.
Vary only realized earlier this year that they were non-binary. “The truth is I don’t identify as male, and I don’t identify as female.”
Until this summer, Vary was Ms. Vary to students. But several months ago, they posted “Hi. I’m Mx. Vary. Welcome to class” on a FLVS physics course landing page and started signing Mx. Vary on emails and texts — a frequent means of communication between FLVS teachers and students and parents.
The issue of gender identity was never a topic of discussion with students, however, they said.
“I didn’t ever say, ‘Hey I’m non-binary’,” Vary said. “We had physics to do.”
But Vary did hope the title Mx – which Webster’s dictionary describes as a “gender-neutral honorific” – would signal that the virtual class was a “safe space” for LGBTQ students, who they viewed as under attack in Florida.
No parents complained to Vary, but on Aug. 28 Vary said the school’s principal instructed them to change the title on all FLVS classroom materials.
“If using a courtesy title, you may only use Ms., Mrs., or Miss in accordance with Florida Statute1000.071,” the document said.
In conversations with administrators, Vary suggested “teacher” or “professor” as other possible titles but was told while there was no law or policy against them, those were not acceptable either.
Aware of the new law, Vary said they “knew it was a possibility” there could be consequences but were still surprised by the termination letter. Then they were determined to challenge it.
“I knew this was a fight that I wanted to fight,” Vary said.