Photographed by Sara Haile.
Update: As reported by Buzzfeed, 16-year-old Chase Culpepper is suing the DMV for the right to retake his driver’s license photo with makeup on. The suit, which his mother filed on his behalf, calls out the DMV for gender discrimination and for violating Culpepper’s freedom of expression. It also asks that the South Carolina federal court strike down the policy that the DMV used as an excuse to force the teenager to remove his makeup before allowing him to take the photo (described in the post below). We’re thrilled that his family is taking legal action, as this is clearly an instance in which an institution took advantage of an outdated policy in order to push a sexist, transphobic agenda. You can read the lawsuit complaint here.
What would you say to a DMV employee if he or she told you that you couldn't wear makeup in your license photo? What if they said your go-to beauty look was a "disguise" and was therefore unacceptable? That's what happened to Chase Culpepper, a gender-nonconforming 16-year-old in South Carolina who had just passed his driving test. Culpepper, who uses male pronouns according to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, chooses to express his gender by wearing makeup and androgynous or girls' clothes — as is his right. But, his local DMV didn't see it that way.
According to the TLDEF, Culpepper was told "he did not look the way DMV employees thought that a boy should." And, when he inquired about the actual policy behind that super-offensive statement, "An employee told Chase that DMV rules prohibited license photos to be taken in 'disguise.'" But, Culpepper wears makeup every day and considers it integral to his expression of self. Unless the DMV considers it a disguise when cisgendered women wear makeup, too, this is blatant transphobia.
Culpepper ended up removing his makeup for the photo; though, he is speaking out about the experience. As reported by the TLDEF, he said, “The Department of Motor Vehicles should not have forced me to remove my makeup simply because my appearance does not meet their expectations of what a boy should look like." Culpepper's mother is also addressing the situation on his behalf, telling local news station WYFF News 4, "It was very hurtful. He was absolutely devastated. That's who he is 24/7."
A representative for the DMV told the local news station that its employees were following a policy implemented in 2009 that reads, "At no time will an applicant be photographed when it appears that he or she is purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity." But, in forcing him to remove his makeup, the employees made Culpepper do just that.
The TLDEF is calling upon the DMV to let Culpepper retake his license photo with makeup on. The advocacy group points out, "Chase was told that he could not wear makeup simply because boys typically do not wear makeup. It was not because his makeup acted as any type of disguise of his identity."
Unfortunately, though, The Huffington Post reports that a DMV spokesperson told the site it was unlikely Culpepper would be able to have a new photo taken because of that 2009 policy. The representative said the DMV works with law enforcement on the policy, and explains, "If it says male [on the license], that's what they're gonna look for. They expect the photo to be of a man."
It's a real shame (to put it mildly) that a teenager was made to feel like his expression of gender was the problem when it's so clearly the system that's flawed. It's about time major institutions (like, um, the government) readjust their expectations about what men and women are supposed to look like. How about we're all treated as humans and given the agency to express our gender however we so choose?
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