Ms., Mr. or Mx.? Nonbinary teachers embrace gender-neutral honorific

Educators who identify as neither exclusively male nor female have found “Mx.” to be a more fitting classroom honorific.
NBC News
By Ben Kesslen

When Maddie Luebbert, 25, returned after a week away from the classroom, their students were complaining about the substitute teacher.

Luebbert dismissed the student complaints at first. “My students said ‘The substitute was awful.’ I was like ‘Yeah right, everyone says that,’” Luebbert told NBC News.

But then the students started explaining why they didn’t like the substitute. “My students said to me, ‘The substitute was really disrespectful. She wouldn't use your pronouns or your name.’”

Maddie Luebbert, a nonbinary, 9th grade English teacher in a Philadelphia public school.Courtesy Maddie Luebbert

Luebbert is a nonbinary, 9th grade English teacher in a Philadelphia public school. Luebbert uses they/them pronouns and has their students address them with honorific Mx. — a gender-neutral alternative to the gendered Mr., Ms., Miss and Mrs. that most of us grew up using for our teachers.

Mx., generally pronounced as “mix,” has grown in popularity over the past few years, as more people outwardly and openly identify as transgender, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary — and have rejected the idea that only two options, male and female, exist.

But as honorifics fade in popularity and people work to avoid gendered assumptions, schools are among the last places where Mr., Ms., Miss and Mrs. are routinely used. For trans and nonbinary educators, like Luebbert, this poses challenges, but also opportunities for learning, education and affirmation.

WHY MX.?

“I didn't like that I had to pick an honorific when I went into teaching,” said Isti Fuller, a 28-year-old nonbinary high school science teacher in the Greater Sacramento Area. “But I used Ms. because it felt like it was as generic as it could get.”

For nonbinary people — those who identify as neither exclusively male nor female — gendered terms, like honorifics, can feel invalidating and ignite gender dysphoria. “It’s jarring when I hear someone call me Ms.,” Fuller said.

When Fuller’s mother found an article about the honorific “Mx.,” they decided to adopt the term. For Fuller, using Mx. is “a lot more comfortable.”

Tai Tran, a 24-year-old transgender 7th grade math and science teacher in Richmond, California, feels similarly. Describing her first year as a teacher, Tran told NBC News that “Going by Mr. Tran was not a very good year for me.” Switching to Mx., she said, “made me a lot happier."

Tai Tran, a transgender 7th grade math and science teacher in Richmond, CaliforniaCourtesy Tai Tran

"I feel like it’s very validating of my own gender identity," Tran explained.

For Tran, using Mx. goes beyond feeling affirmed in the classroom. “Not only am I teaching these students that a queer educator of color is in their space and giving them a quality education, but also that it does not detract from or take away from their education at all,” Tran added.

'MX. MET OUR CRITERIA'

“The earliest example that we know of ‘Mx.’ is a 1977 article published in the United States, in an American magazine called Single Parent," Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, told NBC News.

Brewster was the editor at Merriam-Webster who submitted Mx. to be added to the dictionary.

“I noticed that this word was being used, so I did some research and determined it was eligible for entry," she said.

Merriam-Webster added Mx. to its unabridged dictionary in 2016 and to its website in 2017. Brewster explained that words are added if they’re being used, and if they’ve been published in edited text.

“All the content of our dictionary is based on evidence of words in use,” she said. “Mx. met our criteria.” To her, adding it was a no-brainer.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

'I HAVE TO BE WHO I AM'

Although Mx.’s formal addition to the English language was largely uneventful, all the teachers who spoke to NBC News about using Mx. described challenges like invalidation and difficulties with implementation when they adopted the term.

When Beck Watt, a 25-year-old nonbinary music teacher at a middle school in Winnipeg, Canada, told their school over the summer they were going to start using Mx., they asked that all their information be updated in the school systems by the time the new semester began.

Beck Watt, a nonbinary middle school music teacher in Winnipeg, CanadaCourtesy Beck Watt

“I started my job in September and found that nothing had been done,” Watt told NBC News. “My name was wrong on all my paperwork, my students were getting information about me that’s saying I’m ‘Ms. Watt.’ I was like, ‘That’s not my name. That’s not gonna work.’”

In addition to issues getting their schools to align their personal information with their identity, many of the teachers who use Mx. described problems with misgendering — when someone calls a person by pronouns or honorifics different than the ones that person prefers — from colleagues.

"My students just take me at face value and haven't had any questions," Watt added. "They just go with it, but it’s been a bit more challenging with staff.”

Shani Kartanė, a 28-year-old nonbinary high school English teacher in an industrial Bay Area suburb, agreed, telling NBC News, “I would say it's worse with my colleagues than it is with my students.”

Many teachers told stories of leading workshops and sessions among faculty to get their colleagues up to speed on pronouns and gender diversity. While some colleagues made it clear they were allies, others were resistant.

“Not everyone jumped on board,” Marvin Shelton, a 25-year-old, black nonbinary middle school teacher in the New York City metro area, said. Shelton starting using Mx. and they/them pronouns in the beginning of the spring semester.

“It wasn't until June, the end of the school year, that people really started to be like, ‘Oh, Marvin is seriously going by they/them and Mx.’”

For Kartanė, the challenges came with self-doubt. “I had moments where I thought: I’m too much work, I’m asking too much of my colleagues and students, and that as a teacher I’m there to serve, and part of serving others is not always putting yourself first.”

Shelton felt similarly. “There is a population at my school who think I’m a joke, who joke about my honorifics or the way I carry my body,” they told NBC News. “When there are images in society that say who you are as a person seems to be made up, people think, ‘Why should I change what I know to respect who you are?,’” Shelton said.

One student-teacher in the Southeast, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution and professional impediments, told NBC News, “My professors told me indirectly that my gender and sexuality were a 'political agenda' I needed to leave at home.”

When this teacher casually corrected people about their pronouns, and requested not to be called “Miss,” they were labeled “aggressive.” They felt like they had to choose between being themselves and being a teacher. Eventually, they left their student-teaching program, graduating with a different degree instead.

This story is not unique to the student-teacher who spoke to NBC News. In 2017, a public elementary school in Florida removed a transgender teacher from their classroom who asked student to address them with “Mx.” and use “they/them” pronouns. The school succumbed to parent complaints about the teacher’s request, and transferred the transgender teacher to a classroom with adults.

However, Watt, Kartanė and Shelton emphasized they were grateful to be in schools where such extreme reactions have never occurred, and they were able to eventually integrate their identity into the classroom.

“In order to serve my students, I have to be who I am, and if I’m not, then I can’t serve,” Kartanė said.

Shelton said they were able to tune out the noise and focus on what matters.

“I went into education because it’s a holistic job. I’m not just in the classroom to teach grammar and writing and reading," Shelton said. Teaching people about their identity, they added, is 'part of the job.'"

"I'm an educator," Shelton stressed.

FINDING SUPPORT

Harper Keenan, a trans educator who works in teacher education, knew firsthand the challenges that face trans, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary educators. After a trans friend of his died by suicide, Keenan was determined to help his own community. Then a Ph.D. student in education, he knew the education world well, so he founded the Trans Educators Network.

“What I hoped to do was try to find someway to help my community, trans people, feel less isolated in a world that is often isolating for us,” he told NBC News.

Keenan started posting on Facebook and emailing different education listservs. “I thought I would maybe find 20 people,” he said. “It just ballooned quite quickly, and now, three years later, there’s more than 400 people in the network, and we have members all over North America, from Hawaii to Toronto.”

The network has been a crucial place of support for educators who often lack trans colleagues, and are the first one at their school to come out.

For Watt, this rings especially true. “A lot of my friends are teachers, I know a lot of people who understand the job. But I don’t know a lot of people who understand, 'Yes it's a tough job, but it’s also tough to also be fighting everyday for your identity to be recognized.'”

The network provides a space to talk about the issues specific to trans, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary educators.

“I would say with some frequency folks in the network ask around about what is a non-gendered title that they can use.” Keenan said. “Folks have all different ideas, but Mx. is one that regularly comes up as a potential option.”

Some people opt for students to say “teacher” before their last name, others come up with completely new honorifics, but in the network, discussions around Mx., according to Keenan, “happen frequently.”

While it’s difficult to measure how many people use “Mx.,” Keenan suspects knowledge of the term is regionally dependent. “In places where there is a strongly visible trans, nonbinary and nonconforming community, people are more likely to have some awareness of and familiarity with the term," he said.

'IT’S JUST MY NAME'

Despite the challenges, nearly every teacher who spoke to NBC News said they were glad they decided to start using Mx.

“A lot of my students have been really passionate about advocating for me and my pronouns,” Luebbert said. “It feels like there’s a really healthy back and forth of empathy and respect. We might not know everything about each other, but we're going to explain ourselves in a way that’s fair and that we both understand.”

Shelton added that using Mx. has helped them find “a lot of energy and comfort in the classroom,” telling NBC News that “as a black, queer, first generation teacher, I offer a lot of representation to my students.”

Tran agrees. “I'm making it clear I'm open, I'm out, and it’s nothing to ever be ashamed of. I am owning my own narrative so that others cannot fill in the gaps for me.”

For Fuller, the answer is simpler: “Mostly, it’s just my name,” they said. “I appreciate that I’m in a place where it doesn’t draw attention.”

FOLLOW NBC OUT ON TWITTER, FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM