The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles on behalf of a 16-year-old gender non-conforming teen who was targeted for discrimination last March. When he attempted to get his first driver’s license, Chase Culpepper was told by the DMV that he could not take his license photo unless he removed the makeup that he wears on a regular basis.
The suit – brought by Chase’s mother Teresa Culpepper on his behalf as a minor – asks the court to rule that denying Chase the freedom to wear his everyday makeup in his license photo constitutes sex discrimination and violates his right to free speech and expression under the United States Constitution. It also seeks a ruling under the U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions that the DMV’s photo policy is unconstitutionally vague, too broad, and lets DMV employees arbitrarily decide how a driver’s license applicant should look, without regard for the rights of the people they are supposed to serve.
Chase wears makeup and androgynous or girls’ clothing on a regular basis. On March 3, 2014, he went to the DMV office in Anderson, South Carolina with his mother to get his license. He had already passed his driving test and was dressed as he normally does. DMV employees told Chase that they would not take his license photo while he was wearing makeup and that he did not look the way DMV employees thought that a boy should. He was told that he could not wear a “disguise” and that he needed to “look male” in his license photo. Chase wanted his license and ultimately removed as much makeup as he could and had his photo taken by DMV employees. But he left the office feeling humiliated after changing the way he normally looks.
“My clothing and makeup reflect who I am,” Chase said. “The Department of Motor Vehicles should not have forced me to remove my makeup simply because my appearance does not match what they think a boy should look like. I just want the freedom to be who I am without the DMV telling me that I’m somehow not good enough.”
On June 9, TLDEF sent a letter to the South Carolina DMV asking that Chase be given the opportunity to retake his license photo while dressed as he normally does, with makeup. The letter explained that forcing Chase to alter his everyday appearance was discriminatory and violated Chase’s constitutional rights. But the department never responded to the letter and TLDEF now brings this lawsuit on Chase’s behalf.
“Chase is entitled to be himself and to express his gender non-conformity without interference from the South Carolina DMV,” said TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman. “It is not the role of the DMV or any government agency or employee to decide how men and women should look. Chase should be able to get a driver’s license without being subjected to sex discrimination.”
Along with TLDEF, Chase’s mother is standing by him. “As a mother, it broke my heart to see Chase being forced to be someone that he isn’t. Every time he pulls out his license, he is reminded of that, and that makes it even worse,” said Teresa Culpepper. “I love my son just the way he is. The DMV should not have treated him this way.”
“I want to take my license photo again, with makeup, so I can be myself and express to the world who I truly am,” Chase added.
The suit, Teresa Culpepper v. Kevin A. Shwedo, et al., is pending in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division. Fulbright & Jaworski LLP and Wyche, P.A. are pro bono co-counsel for Chase with TLDEF.