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Transgender teen, SCDMV settle lawsuit over license photo

Culpepper (TLDEF)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- A 17-year-old Upstate SC teen has settled the lawsuit brought against the South Carolina DMV over allowing her to wear makeup in her driver's license photo.

Chase Culpepper, who was born male, regularly wears makeup and either androgynous or women's clothing and refers to herself using feminine pronouns.

Last March, SCDMV officials told Culpepper that her makeup and clothes were considered a disguise and had to be removed and changed to reflect a male persona.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund filed suit on Culpepper's behalf in September, calling the DMV's response humiliating and a violation of her civil rights.

"I am very proud of Chase for having the courage to stand up to the discrimination she faced at the DMV," said Chase's mother Teresa Culpepper. "I love Chase just the way she is. Her victory will make the DMV experience much better for transgender and gender nonconforming people in the future."

According to the release, the lawsuit also asked for a ruling under U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions that the DMV's former photo policy was "unconstitutionally vague, too broad, and allowed DMV employees to arbitrarily decide how a driver's license applicant should look, including based on unconstitutional gender stereotypes."

On Wednesday, TLDEF officials announced that the case had been settled and that Culpepper will be allowed to retake her driver's license photo and dress however she likes.

"I am thrilled with the outcome of my lawsuit," said Chase Culpepper. "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. I'm so glad that I stood up for what's right and helped make positive change for transgender and gender nonconforming people."

TLDEF officials confirmed that under the settlement, the SCDMV will:

  • Change its photo policy to allow license applicants to be photographed the way they appear regularly, even when their hair, makeup or clothing doesn't match the DMV's expectations of how a man or a woman should look
  • Implement training for DMV employees that addresses the new policy and the professional treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals
  • Allow Chase to return to the DMV to get her license photograph taken wearing makeup
  • Apologize to Chase for how she was treated at the DMV.

"This settlement agreement sends a strong message about equal rights," said TLDEF Staff Attorney Ethan Rice. "Transgender and gender nonconforming people are entitled to be themselves without interference from the DMV. 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. The policy changes and training that the DMV will implement in response to Chase's lawsuit will help all transgender and gender nonconforming South Carolina residents in the future."

DMV employees will now go through what the settlement calls "Respect" training including a periodic email called 'Newsbreak' to alert them to policy changes. They will also go through weekly training in each office to address "the professional treatment of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals."

SCDMV Executive Director Kevin Shwedo is also required to issue a written apology to Culpepper within five days of the settlement.

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