Dec 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Florida teachers sue state over law restricting pronouns

Illustration of a gavel with a trans flag on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two Florida teachers and one former educator on Wednesday sued the state Department of Education alleging a new law restricting transgender teachers from using pronouns that align with their gender identities is unconstitutional.

Why it matters: The suit adds to a long list of legal challenges against laws targeting LGBTQ+ Floridians that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have prioritized over the last few years.

What's happening: The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit in federal court on behalf of Katie Wood, a teacher at Lennard High in Ruskin, about 25 miles south of Tampa; AV Schwandes, a former Florida Virtual School teacher who lives in Orange County; and a Lee County teacher referred to as Jane Doe. Wood and Doe are transgender women. Schwandes is nonbinary.

  • The law, which went into effect July 1, "pushed one plaintiff out of their teaching career and threatens to do the same for the other plaintiffs — and for the other transgender and nonbinary teachers like them across Florida," the suit says.

What they're saying: "Those who support and enforce this law are trying to take my voice away and bury my existence. But they will not," Wood said in a statement.

The other side: Representatives from the Florida Department of Education did not immediately return Axios' request for comment.

Zoom in: The suit challenges a section of the law that says a school employee "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."

  • That section violates Supreme Court precedent and, along with other recently adopted laws, "sends the state-sanctioned, invidious, and false message that transgender and nonbinary people and their identities are inherently dangerous," per the lawsuit.
  • Teachers who violate the law could face revocation or suspension of their teaching license.
  • "Florida's goal behind these laws is to stigmatize and demonize transgender and nonbinary people and relegate them from public life altogether," the suit says.

Flashback: Before its passage, LGBTQ+ advocates derided the legislation as "Don't Say They," playing on the "Don't Say Gay" nickname given to the 2022 law that restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

  • DeSantis signed the bill into law in May, one of several bills that critics dubbed a "slate of hate" laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community and denying the existence of transgender people.
  • It rejects a distinction between sex and gender identity, saying 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."

Details: When Wood, who teaches math, began presenting as a woman a few years ago the district was supportive, allowing her to use she/her pronouns and go by "Ms. Wood."

  • But since the law went into effect, district officials told her she could only go by Mr., Teacher or Coach. She opted for Teacher, which felt awkward to Wood and was distracting to students, many of whom continued referring to her as "Ms.," the lawsuit says. Doe had a similar experience.
  • Schwandes, who taught science, uses they/them pronouns and went by the gender-neutral title "Mx." After the law went into effect, a supervisor asked Schwandes to use gendered titles instead. They refused and were ultimately fired.
  • All three defendants have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, per the lawsuit.
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