Law & Courts

Florida Teachers Sue Over State Law Restricting Their Pronoun Use

By Madeline Will — December 18, 2023 5 min read
Santaluces High School teacher Michael Woods stands in front of his school sign in Lantana, Fla., wearing his protest shirt "We Are All Human" in opposition to recent book bans by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 24, 2023. DeSantis is touting a series of measures he has pushed that have led to an upswing in banned or restricted books — not just in Florida schools but in an increasing number of other conservative states.
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Should transgender and nonbinary teachers be able to share their pronouns with students or choose a gender-neutral title like Mx.? A federal court may soon decide.

Three Florida teachers sued in federal court over a provision of a new state law that says school employees “may not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if such preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.” The law took effect in July, and those in violation could have their teaching license revoked or suspended, along with other penalties.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, alleges that the provision is discriminatory on the basis of sex and violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional free speech rights. The state has “upended the respect that is owed to [the plaintiffs] as educators and that is necessary for a safe workplace and functioning classroom,” the lawsuit contends.

The plaintiffs, who are being represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern Legal Counsel, and Altshuler Berzon, LLP, a California-based law firm, are transgender and nonbinary educators who say that the provision of the law has caused emotional harm—and in one case, cost them their job.

AV Schwandes, a nonbinary science teacher, was fired from their job at the Florida Virtual School, a statewide online public school district, over their use of the Mx. title. (The gender-neutral honorific can be pronounced like mix or mux; Schwandes pronounces it as the latter.)

“I’m not Ms., I’m not Mrs., I’m not Mr.,” Schwandes said in an interview. “Lawmakers have a very rigid set of sex stereotypes, but I don’t fit within those stereotypes.”

The lawsuit says that Schwandes started to use the Mx. title and they/them pronouns at work this summer. Schwandes’ supervisor was initially OK with it, but on Aug. 28, he told them to instead use the honorific Ms. or Mrs.

Schwandes refused to comply. On Sept. 15, they were suspended for violating the law, and on Oct. 24, they were fired by the Florida Virtual School’s board of trustees. The board members are appointed by the state’s governor.

“Being able to be myself is a prerequisite for me being an effective teacher,” they said. “Using something else just isn’t an option for me.”

The Florida education department declined to comment on pending litigation. But last month, Manny Diaz, Jr., the state’s commissioner of education, wrote to the Orange County school board to clarify the state’s new pronoun law, which also prevents any student or employee from being required to use someone’s preferred title or pronouns if they don’t correspond to that person’s sex at birth.

The law, Diaz wrote, “conveys a matter of truth that, until the past few years, was evident to all, namely that ‘a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.’”

“In sum, the statute prohibits people from being forced to refer to others by false pronouns, and it prohibits school district employees from taking an active role in exposing students to these falsities,” Diaz concluded.

The plaintiffs say the law has caused emotional damage

Katie Wood, a transgender woman who teaches high school math in Hillsborough County, was able to use she/her pronouns and the title of Ms. at work before the law went into effect, according to the lawsuit. But after the law was passed, her principal and the school board told her that she could no longer use the Ms. title—she had to choose between Mr., Teacher, or Coach.

Wood chose to go by “Teacher Wood,” but the lawsuit says that the gender-neutral title does not come naturally to her and has caused her to feel stigmatized. It has also distracted her students, though most still call her Ms. Wood, according to the lawsuit.

Wood also can no longer correct anyone who misgenders her at work by using he/him pronouns. She can’t tell a student who calls her Mr. that her title is Teacher instead, the lawsuit states.

The other plaintiff is referred to as Jane Doe; she opted for a pseudonym out of fear of harassment and violence. Doe is a transgender woman who teaches in Lee County. The district was initially supportive of her transition at work, but after the pronoun law went into effect, she was no longer able to tell students she uses she/her pronouns and the Ms. title.

Going by the title of Mr. or using he/him pronouns would cause Doe emotional harm, risk physical harm from others, and disrupt her ability to do her job, the lawsuit claims.

Schwandes said they’ve heard stories of other teachers leaving the classroom because of the pronoun law.

“It’s a huge challenge to face the violation of one’s civil rights just to engage in an underpaid and underappreciated profession,” they said. “At some point for a lot of teachers, the cons of teaching in Florida will outweigh the pros.”

Schwandes added that they feel like the law is sending a message that their existence is a lie and that Florida lawmakers “know who I am better than I know myself.”

“This law tells me that Florida lawmakers want me and everyone like me to disappear,” they said. “But I have a message for [them]: I do exist, I am nonbinary, and I am not going anywhere.”

Another pronoun case is making its way through the courts

Pronouns have been a contentious issue in schools in recent years. At least 10 states, including Florida, have passed laws saying that educators and students aren’t required to use students’ pronouns or names if they don’t align with their sex at birth.

There have also been multiple lawsuits filed about pronouns and schools. Last week, the Supreme Court of Virginia reinstated a lawsuit filed by a high school teacher who was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns.

The former teacher, Peter Vlaming, is claiming that using a transgender student’s pronouns violated his sincerely held religious and philosophical beliefs. He says that he did use the student’s chosen name and tried to avoid the use of pronouns all together.

The state supreme court ruled that Vlaming did have grounds to sue and remanded the case to a lower court for trial. The majority opinion, signed by four of the court’s seven justices, says that the state’s constitution offers strong religious liberty protections.

“Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to these principles can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Justice Arthur Kelsey wrote.

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