Activists and legal advocates for trans and gender-nonconforming people are calling foul in South Carolina after a teenager was told to remove his makeup if he wanted to have his photo taken for the driver's license he had just earned.
Chase Culpepper identifies as male and regularly wears dresses and makeup in his day-to-day life. And while he was nervous about passing his driver's test to get his first license from the Anderson, S.C., Department of Motor Vehicles March 3, he never thought he'd run into trouble because of his appearance.
But after Culpepper aced the test, a DMV employee told the teenager that if he wanted his photo taken for his new license, he would have to remove the eye makeup and lipstick he was wearing. Culpepper says the employee told him that his appearance did not match how a "boy should look." The employee allegedly told the teen that his makeup constituted a "disguise."
After unsuccessful attempts by the teenager and his mother to explain to DMV employees that Culpepper was presenting as he does every day, Culpepper complied with the request and removed his makeup. His photo was taken and he subsequently received his driver's license.
"It was very degrading, and I was in shock," Culpepper told South Carolina TV station WYFF in a segment broadcast this week.
Following media attention, the South Carolina DMV has pointed to a regulation adopted in 2009 as its explanation for the treatment Culpepper received. That policy states, "At no time will an applicant be photographed when it appears that he or she is purposefully altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity."
But Culpepper's mother said that by making her son take off his makeup, the DMV employee actually forced her son to misrepresent himself. "It was incredibly devastating," Teresa Culpepper told the local news station. "This is who he is. And for him to not have makeup on would be a disguise in itself."
The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund has taken up Culpepper's story, and has sent a letter to the Anderson DMV asking that the office allow the teen to retake his driver's license photo — complete with the makeup he wears every day.
Noting that the teenager's attire and makeup are "essential components of his gender expression," TLDEF executive director Michael D. Silverman summarizes the incident thusly:
"DMV staff mandated that Chase look more like a boy, deliberately seeking to suppress the feminine and androgynous aspects of Chase’s gender expression. Women are permitted to wear makeup in their driver’s license photos as a matter of course, yet Chase was targeted for suppression because he is a male expressing himself in a feminine manner.
"In the end, 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. Sex stereotypes like this do not justify a government agency’s restriction of constitutionally protected expression."
At press time, the Anderson DMV had not announced a change in policy or expressed a willingness to let Culpepper retake his photo.