Gender non-conforming teen sues over driver's license photo

by: Greg Suskin Updated:

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Channel 9 was in Columbia Tuesday, as 16-year-old Chase Culpepper accused the DMV of forcing him to be something he's not.

Culpepper listed himself as male on the driver's license application. However, when it comes to how he dresses and lives his life, he considers himself to be gender non-conforming.

Culpepper looks nothing like your typical teen boy. Talking to reporters on Tuesday, he wore lady's jewelry, shoes, clothes and full makeup.

When he went to get his driver's license in Anderson County in March, the DMV employees would not take his picture.

"They told me that I could not wear disguises and I need to look more like a boy," Culpepper said.

The state requires that anything that alters someone's appearance cannot be worn for driver's license photos. Culpepper said that doesn't apply to him because he wears makeup and women's clothes daily and that is his true appearance.

"I was horrified and saddened by what happened to him," said his mother, Teresa Culpepper.

He was asked to remove his face makeup and he went to bathroom twice to do that before they would take his picture. He said the final picture isn’t who he is.

"I just want my license photo to accurately reflect me," Chase Culpepper said.

On the steps of the state house in Columbia, Chase Culpepper announced a federal sex-discrimination lawsuit against the DMV.

Michael Silverman heads the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. He called the DMV's actions sex stereotyping.

"It’s a violation of his personal rights and his right to free speech under the constitution," Silverman said. "It's not the role of the DMV or any government agency or employee to decide how men and women ought to look."

Chase Culpepper's mother said she never expected there would be a problem that day at the DMV.

"It was heartbreaking to see my son humiliated because he wears makeup," she said.

Late Tuesday a DMV spokeswoman told Channel 9 the agency cannot comment on a pending lawsuit.

The family is not seeking any damages or money but only that Chase Culpepper be allowed to retake his driver's license photo wearing makeup.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund is also asking the court to require South Carolina to clarify its rules on the issue which they call vague and discriminatory.

Silverman said he'd hoped the filing of the lawsuit would cause the DMV to reconsider its position. He said he knew of no other similar lawsuit before the courts in any other state.