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Lawsuit: DMV Forced ‘Gender Non-Conforming’ Teen To Remove Makeup For License Photo

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Anderson, S.C. (CBS CHARLOTTE) – A federal lawsuit backed by The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund is being filed on behalf of a South Carolina teen, who considers himself gender non-conforming, because he was forced to take off his makeup for a driver’s license picture.

Chase Culpepper, 16, wears androgynous and feminine clothing but uses male pronouns, and says that the Anderson Department of Motor Vehicles forced him to take off his makeup for the driver’s license photo he earned after passing the tests, WYFF-TV reports. Chase says he and his mother went to the DMV office on March 3, where he was told he couldn’t have his picture taken because he didn’t look “like a boy should.”

Chase said the DMV prevented him from wearing makeup, labeling it a “disguise” during his visit to get his license. The gender non-conforming teen is having the lawsuit filed on his behalf by his mother, Teresa Culpepper.

“[The DMV employee] said that I could not wear a disguise to take my photo, and according to her, me wearing makeup would be a disguise. And I did not look like a boy should,” Chase told WYFF in June.

“They said he was wearing a disguise,” added Teresa Culpepper. “It was very hurtful. He was absolutely devastated. That’s who he is 24/7…And for him to not have makeup on would be a disguise in itself.”

Beth Parks of the Anderson DMV office said the employees were simply following policy. In August 2009, she said the policy was updated to say, “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.”

The federal lawsuit now being filed asks the court to rule that denying Chase his freedom to wear his everyday makeup in his license photo constitutes sexual discrimination and violates his right to free speech and expression under the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the complaint states that the U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions are both too vague, allowing DMV employees to arbitrarily decide the appearance of a license applicant.

TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman told WYFF that defining strict gender roles is not the role of the DMV.

“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,” Silverman explained to WYFF.

The DMV does make exceptions for medical and religious reasons.

Chase ultimately removed his makeup in order to take the driver’s license photo, but now he and other supporters are considering legal action should he not be denied his “free speech rights,” and not given another photo.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund is demanding the SCDMV to allow Culpepper to retake his picture, but because the DMV followed state policies, state officials say it is not likely that Chase will be allowed to re-take the driver’s license photo.

“Chase’s freedom to express his gender should not be restricted by DMV staff,” Silverman wrote in a June 9 letter to the DMV. “He is entitled to be who he is and to express that without interference from government actors. Forcing Chase to remove his makeup prior to taking his driver’s license photo restricts his free speech rights in violation of state and federal constitutional protections.”

“It was not because his makeup acted as any type of disguise of his identity,” continues the letter. “Sex stereotypes like this do not justify a government agency’s restriction of constitutionally protected expression.”

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