Victory! TLDEF Reaches Settlement in Landmark Federal Lawsuit Against South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles on Behalf of Transgender Teen Forced to Remove Makeup for Driver's License Photo

Chase CulpepperSC DMV Agrees to Allow Chase Culpepper to Retake Her License Photo Wearing Makeup, Apologize, and Change Policy to Ensure that Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People Will Be Treated Fairly and Respectfully

(Please note: At the time of the incident and lawsuit filing, we referred to Chase as gender nonconforming and used male pronouns in accordance with her wishes. Chase has since begun identifying as transgender and using female pronouns and our discussion of her case reflects that here.)

April 22, 2015 - TLDEF is thrilled to announce a settlement in a historic federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles on behalf of Chase Culpepper. The settlement is featured in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Chase is a transgender girl who was targeted for discrimination in March 2014 when she attempted to get her first driver’s license. She was told by DMV employees that she could not take her photo unless she removed the makeup that she wears on a regular basis. They told her that she needed to “look male” in her license photo and refused to provide her with her driver’s license if she did not remove the makeup she was wearing.

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In September 2014, TLDEF filed a federal lawsuit on Chase’s behalf. The suit asked the court to rule that denying Chase the freedom to wear her everyday makeup in her license photo constituted sex discrimination and violated her right to free speech and expression under the United States Constitution. It also sought a ruling under the U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions that the DMV’s former photo policy was unconstitutionally vague, too broad, and allowed DMV employees to arbitrarily decide how a driver's license applicant should look, including based on unconstitutional gender stereotypes.

Under the terms of the settlement announced today, the South Carolina DMV will (1) change its photo policy to allow license applicants to be photographed the way they appear regularly, even when their hair, makeup or clothing doesn’t match the DMV’s expectations of how a man or a woman should look; (2) implement training for DMV employees that addresses the new policy and the professional treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals; (3) allow Chase to return to the DMV to get her license photograph taken wearing makeup; and (4) apologize to Chase for how she was treated at the DMV.

“This settlement agreement sends a strong message about equal rights,” said TLDEF Staff Attorney Ethan Rice. “Transgender and gender nonconforming people are entitled to be themselves without interference from the DMV. It is not the role of the DMV or its employees to decide how men and women should look. People should be able to get a driver’s license without being subjected to sex discrimination. The policy changes and training that the DMV will implement in response to Chase’s lawsuit will help all transgender and gender nonconforming South Carolina residents in the future.”

Chase and her mother Teresa also voiced their enthusiasm about the resolution of this case:

“I am thrilled with the outcome of my lawsuit,” said Chase Culpepper. “My clothing and makeup reflect who I am. From day one, all I wanted was to get a driver’s license that looks like me. Now I will be able to do that. It was hurtful to be singled out for being transgender and made to feel that somehow I wasn’t good enough. With this settlement, the DMV can no longer force transgender people to look like someone they’re not. I’m so glad that I stood up for what’s right and helped make positive change for transgender and gender nonconforming people.”

“I am very proud of Chase for having the courage to stand up to the discrimination she faced at the DMV,” said Chase’s mother Teresa Culpepper. “I love Chase just the way she is. Her victory will make the DMV experience much better for transgender and gender nonconforming people in the future.”

Peter Guirguis and David Schwartz of Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP and Marshall Winn and Wallace K. Lightsey of Wyche, P.A. served as pro bono co-counsel with TLDEF. We are grateful for their assistance.

The suit, Culpepper v. Shwedo, et al., Case No. 3:14-cv-03504-CMC, was filed in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division.