Transgender teen wins settlement with South Carolina DMV

Chase Culpepper was forced to remove her makeup for her driver’s license photo so she would ‘look male’

A transgender teen will be allowed to return to her local DMV and take a new driver’s license photo wearing the makeup she puts on daily, after her lawyers struck a settlement with the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday. DMV employees had told her to remove her makeup to "look male” in her photo.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina DMV in September 2014 for violating the teenager’s constitutional free speech rights and for sex discrimination, told Al Jazeera that the settlement was the first of its kind in the country.

“This is a terrific victory for transgender rights and for the principle that transgender people, like all Americans, deserve the freedom to be who they are and look like who they are without government restrictions and interference,” said TLDEF executive director Michael Silverman.

The plaintiff, Chase Culpepper, a transgender woman, was 16 years old when she visited the Anderson, South Carolina DMV in March 2014. She regularly wore makeup and dresses, though at the time, she considered herself to be gender-nonconforming and still used male pronouns. She now identifies as transgender.

When Culpepper applied for her first driver’s license and passed the tests, the DMV employees refused to take her photograph, telling her she had to “go home” and “take off the makeup,” according to court documents (PDF).

Within earshot of the busy DMV lobby, a supervisor said that the teen needed to appear in the driver’s license photograph the same way she would if she were pulled over by a police officer, the court documents say. Culpepper’s mother, Teresa, explained that since her child wore makeup every day, she would be wearing it when stopped by police. Teresa also asked the DMV supervisor whether other female applicants had to remove their makeup or if applicants wearing hair extensions or toupees had to take them off for their driver’s license photos.

But the supervisor didn’t answer the questions, insisting that since Culpepper’s license specified her sex as male, “he needed to look male in his driver’s license photograph,” according to court papers.

The lawsuit alleges that when Culpepper went to the DMV restroom to try to wash off the makeup, the supervisor “loudly” told her that she “had not removed enough makeup.” Culpepper said she was “publicly humiliated.”

Culpepper returned to the restroom to try to wash off more of the makeup and was then allowed to take the photo. During the entire interaction between Culpepper, her mother and the supervisor, which took between 45 minutes and an hour, “members of the public in the Anderson DMV lobby laughed and snickered at” the teenager, according to court documents.

The South Carolina DMV reached a settlement with TLDEF and the Culpeppers, allowing Chase Culpepper to return and take a new driver’s license photo while wearing her makeup. The state’s DMV also now explicitly allows applicants to look the way they appear regularly, even if they do not conform to gender norms considered “typical” by the DMV. The DMV will also train its employees on how to properly handle transgender and gender nonconforming applicants.

“I am thrilled with the outcome of my lawsuit,” Culpepper said Wednesday in a statement. “My clothing and makeup reflect who I am. From day one, all I wanted was to get a driver’s license that looks like me. Now I will be able to do that. It was hurtful to be singled out for being transgender and made to feel that somehow I wasn’t good enough. With this settlement, the DMV can no longer force transgender people to look like someone they’re not.”

TLDEF told Al Jazeera that Culpepper’s wasn’t the first complaint it had received regarding transgender driver’s license applicants being asked to conform to traditional gender norms by the DMV, though it was the first resulting in a lawsuit and settlement. Three transgender women at three separate DMVs in West Virginia have also run into this problem, Silverman said.

“Many DMVs, through explicit regulations or unwritten policies, impose restrictions upon transgender people,” he said, adding that these policies violate free speech laws and constitute illegal sex discrimination. “That said, there are many unchallenged laws and regulations and practices that exist, and until someone like Chase stands up to say, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated that way,’ they go untested or unchallenged.”

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