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How a transgender teen got South Carolina to change its license photo policy

Chase Culpepper. (Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund/Reuters)
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When Chase Culpepper first tried to get a driver’s license last year, South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles employees said the 16-year-old couldn’t wear makeup for the photo.

Culpepper, who currently identifies as female, identified as male at the time and was regularly wearing women’s clothing and makeup. A DMV employee, citing a policy that says people taking license photos can’t “purposefully alter” their appearances to misrepresent their identities, had Culpepper go into the bathroom repeatedly to remove the makeup before posing for a photo.

Culpepper wanted to retake the license photo, but the DMV refused. So the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit in federal court on Culpepper’s behalf, claiming discrimination based on sex stereotypes.

Now, the DMV will change its policy under terms of a settlement reached this week.

Culpepper, who can now retake her photo, said she was “thrilled” with the outcome.

“My clothing and makeup reflect who I am,” she said in a statement. “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.”

A spokeswoman for the South Carolina DMV said the agency does not comment on litigation.

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The new policy, to be implemented by the end of May, states that cosmetic makeup can be worn on any person “regardless of gender,” and that a person isn’t misrepresenting his or her identity when makeup or clothing don’t match traditional gender expectations. DMV employees will also be trained in how to serve transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

The lawsuit, settled in the U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C., was the first of its kind to challenge these sorts of restrictions on license photos, according to Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund executive director Michael Silverman. Lawyers for the organization said the new policies and training will help transgender South Carolina residents.

“Transgender and gender nonconforming people are entitled to be themselves without interference from the DMV,” TLDEF staff attorney Ethan Rice said in a statement. “It is not the role of the DMV or its employees to decide how men and women should look. People should be able to get a driver’s license without being subjected to sex discrimination.”

Since Culpepper’s case began to make headlines, Silverman said his organization has heard from individuals in other states with similar stories. TLDEF is currently negotiating with the West Virginia DMV to change its photo policies after three transgender women said they were told to remove makeup and jewelry, Silverman said.

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Identification photo policies differ from state to state, and advocates want them to align with policies around federal identifying documents such as passports; those policies dictate that photos should simply reflect the applicant’s current appearance.

“Transgender individuals face a great deal of difficulty and discrimination at Department of Motor Vehicles around the country,” Silverman said. He added that aside from “humiliating and degrading” situations, it’s difficult for transgender individuals to live everyday life with identifying documents that don’t actually look like them.

The South Carolina DMV previously defended the manager at its Anderson, S.C., office who instructed Culpepper to pose without makeup, saying the agency’s policy was intended to help law enforcement. “If it’s Thomas Jones on the license and yet it looks like a female, that is very confusing for them,” DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks told the Associated Press in 2014. “They want to know what the identity is.”

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According to the initial lawsuit, Culpepper’s mother, Teresa, told the DMV manager that since Chase wears makeup every day, that’s how the teen would appear when pulled over by an officer.

“I understand that he does wear makeup all the time, and for women, regular everyday makeup is acceptable,” Parks, the DMV spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “But it is unusual to see it on a young man.”

In addition to being able to snap a new license photo, Culpepper will also receive a written apology from the agency.

“With this settlement, the DMV can no longer force transgender people to look like someone they’re not,” said Culpepper, now 17. “I’m so glad that I stood up for what’s right and helped make positive change for transgender and gender nonconforming people.”

READ MORE: Transgender in the military: A Pentagon in transition weighs its policy

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