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The makeup Chase Culpepper usually wears sparked a sex discrimination lawsuit. (photo: Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund)
All Chase Culpepper wanted was a driver’s license photo that reflected the way she usually looks.
Instead, the transgender teen scored a legal settlement on Monday against her home state of South Carolina, which refused to let the 17-year-old take her driver’s license photo while wearing her usual makeup—telling her that she needed to look more like a male before she could sit for the photo.
“I’m thrilled, and I hope it means that no other transgender person has to have their rights violated for being different,” Chase tells Yahoo Parenting in one of her only interviews since the settlement.
Chase’s battle began in March 2013, when she and her mom, Teresa, went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office near their home in the town of Anderson. Chase, 16 at the time, had already passed her driver’s test, and the only step left was to wait in line and get the actual license.
But just when Chase reached the front of the line and was ready to take the photo, a DMV clerk and supervisor told her she had to wash off her makeup because it altered her appearance too much. Driver’s license photos have to show a person the way she always appears, the employees explained.
Chase on the steps of the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia, where the case filed on her behalf was settled. (photo: Teresa Culpepper)
“I told the supervisor that this was Chase’s usual appearance because he always wears makeup,” Teresa Culpepper tells Yahoo Parenting. “But she would not relent. It was about Chase being classified as a male on his license, yet he doesn’t look like a male.”
Chase ended up taking off her makeup because she didn’t want to leave the DMV without her license. But later that day, she told her mom that what happened wasn’t right, and she wanted to do something about it.
“I said go for it,” says Teresa.
Chase contacted the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), a national organization that fights for the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The group agreed to take the case.
“We sent a letter to the state explaining that the policy preventing Chase from getting her photo taken while wearing makeup was unconstitutional,” Michael Silverman, executive director of TLDEF, tells Yahoo Parenting. When the state didn’t change it, TLDEF filed the lawsuit on Chase’s behalf.
Chase and her older brother M.J., a college student at the University of South Carolina (photo: Teresa Culpepper)
The settlement mandates that South Carolina change their policy, so driver’s license applicants are photographed the way they appear regularly, even if they don’t match the traditional way a male or female is supposed to look. DMV employees also must undergo training that covers the new policy and how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming people with courtesy.
“It’s a big victory for transgender rights, and it means that trans people can be who they are and not have their appearance be subjected to sex discrimination,” says Silverman.
Though the ruling only affects South Carolina, it’s likely to prompt other states to re-examine their own policies toward LGBT people and make sure they don’t violate their rights, says Silverman.
The settlement also means that Chase will get an official apology from the state. And she’ll be able to retake her driver’s license photo wearing the makeup that’s part of her day-to-day look.
“We’re looking forward to getting the new license in the next few weeks,” says Teresa. Adds Chase: “No one should have to be singled out like I was.”