All Chase Culpepper wanted was a driver’s license picture that looked like her.
But last March, after she stepped up to the counter at the Anderson motor vehicles office — wearing pearl earrings, mascara and a touch of foundation — an employee pulled her aside and ordered her to wash her face. Culpepper, a transgender teenager, was told she wasn’t allowed to have her photo taken unless she removed her makeup.
In September, the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit on Culpepper’s behalf against the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. On Wednesday, her attorneys announced that they had reached a settlement with the agency. The DMV will revise its policy to require employees to photograph license applicants the way they typically appear — even if their makeup, clothes or accessories don’t match traditional gender expectations. The DMV will also train its employees on the “professional treatment of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.” The new policy will take effect in May.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Culpepper, 17, said in an interview with The Post and Courier. “It’s really great news, not only for me, but all transgender people in the state of South Carolina.”
Culpepper was born male and previously self-identified as gender nonconforming. She now identifies as a transgender girl and refers to herself using feminine pronouns.
When she visited the Anderson DMV last year, officials cited a policy that “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.” They said the policy was in place because law enforcement agencies rely on drivers’ license photos to identify people.
Culpepper argued that her makeup reflected her everyday appearance. Still, she was denied a request to take a new photo.
Her mother, Teresa Culpepper, sued Kevin Shwedo, executive director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, and Tammy King, manager of the DMV office in Anderson. The suit claimed that DMV’s policy discriminated against Culpepper based on preconceived stereotypes about sex, and for violating her constitutional rights to free speech and expression.
“The settlement in Chase’s case stands for the clear proposition that transgender people must be treated equally and they must be allowed to be themselves and look like how they really are without government restriction or interference,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Chase stood up for what’s right and she prevailed.”
The policy revision only applies to photos. In order for an applicant to change her sex on a South Carolina ID, she must submit medical records and an updated birth certificate or court order demonstrating proof of gender change — something Culpepper eventually plans to do as part of her transition process.
Under the terms of the agreement, Culpepper has withdrawn her lawsuit. The DMV will also issue a formal apology to Culpepper for the way she was treated. A DMV spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the settlement, saying she couldn’t comment on litigation.
Jeff Ayers, chairman of South Carolina Equality, called the settlement a victory for transgender rights in the state.
“The transgender community should be proud of this moment in South Carolina. This is a step forward for them,” he said.
For now, Culpepper, a high school junior, is just relieved to put this experience behind her. She’s looking forward to graduating next year, going to college — possibly to study psychology — and returning to the Anderson DMV to get her license “just like anyone else.” And she wants to remind other transgender teenagers to have hope for their futures, too.
“Stay resilient and strong. You have to keep in mind things are going to change and get better,” she said. “I’m very proud of South Carolina for leaning towards progress.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764. Dave Munday contributed to this report.