South Carolina teen fights to wear makeup in his DMV license photo

Wed Jun 18, 2014 1:49pm EDT

(Reuters) - A national transgender advocacy group has asked South Carolina officials to retake the driver's license photo of a teenager who says his free speech rights were violated when he was not allowed to wear makeup for his original picture.

Chase Culpepper, 16, a self-described gender non-conformist, often wears androgynous or girls’ clothing. When he went to get his license in March, workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Anderson, South Carolina, permitted him to wear pearl earrings but told him he had to remove his mascara and eye shadow before they would take his photo, he said.

"I was told that I did not look like a boy should, and I could not wear a disguise to have my license photo taken," Culpepper said on Wednesday. "I felt degraded."

In a June 9 letter to the state, the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund said officials were wrong to restrict how Culpepper expressed his gender and requested that the agency reconsider its position.

But a department spokeswoman on Wednesday stood by its actions, citing a 2009 agency rule that forbids license photographs to be taken when an applicant seems to be "purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity."

Spokeswoman Beth Parks said the policy helped ensure that law enforcement officers knew whether they were dealing with a male or female. The department has no plans to retake Culpepper's photo with him wearing makeup, she said.

"His driver's license has a male name," Parks said. "It says he's male. The picture that is on the driver's license needs to reflect a male."

A spokeswoman for the transgender group said it had not decided whether to pursue legal action. Culpepper said he regretted agreeing to wipe off his makeup.

"This is who I am," he said. "This is how I am every day. If anything, making me take off my makeup would be the disguise."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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