When you apply or update your driver’s license you of course need to supply accurate information and a photo that roughly matches how you look on any general day, but what happens when the DMV won’t recognize your gender transition?
That’s the problem faced by two West Virginia women whom the DMV refused to photograph, with staff subjecting both women to discriminatory and dehumanizing treatment.
Kristen Skinner, a 45-year-old IT professional, went to the DMV at the Charles Town office in Jefferson County in January to update her driver’s license to reflect her gender presentation. She had with her confirmation of her name change so that the DMV could see this was all legally sound. Instead, she contends that the DMV staff told her that she could not wear makeup in her photo, and not politely, either. Says Skinner in comments made to Channel 3000: “The manager referred to me as ‘it’ and told me to take off my makeup, wig and fake eyelashes.”
As Skinner’s eyelashes and hair are her own, she was unable to do so. After she removed all facial makeup, the manager then agreed to allow her to have her photo taken. Skinner calls the treatment she received “humiliating” and “unprofessional” and makes the following, very astute observation: “Isn’t the point of a photo identification to identify how you look every day?”
This renders the ID virtually meaningless because it does not accurately reflect her gender presentation at all.
In a separate incident 52 year-old Trudy Kitzmiller of Mount Storm visited the DMV office in Martinsburg in May. She needed to update her driver’s license so that it matched her legal name and gender aligned appearance. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, which is representing both women, contends that Kitzmiller took with her the relevant court documents that confirm her name change, as well as paperwork from her doctors that confirm she is undergoing gender change related health care.
However, Kitzmiller says that she was also called an “it” by the staff, who then similarly told her to take off her wig, makeup and jewelry. Kitzmiller refused and the DMV staff did not relent, therefore Kitzmiller left the office with her old driver’s license. Not only has this caused her problems surrounding her use of her vehicle, it has also made applying for jobs more difficult because this vital piece of ID does not match her name or her gender presentation.
“This is who I am — a transgender woman — and I have overcome many obstacles to become my true self. DMV staff not only denied me the right to appear in my license photo as myself, they used dehumanizing language to address me,” Trudy said. “The experience was humiliating and wrong. I am asking the DMV to allow me to retake my license photo as I regularly appear and to treat transgender people fairly moving forward. I want to move on with my life and participate fully in society with an ID that accurately reflects who I am.”
We need to be very clear what was happening here. The women were not trying to change their gender markers from “M” to “F”, for which West Virginia law requires them to have undergone surgery (more on that below). No, they were simply trying to update their licenses so that they match their current presentation and legal names, for which they both had paperwork and provided it the DMV.
However, and while denouncing the language that the two women faced, West Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles acting commissioner Steve Dale, told CNN that, essentially, DMV staff were right to deny the women the update because they haven’t had gender change surgery:
Dale recommends each woman receive a court-ordered statement that indicates they have transitioned genders.
Then, and only then, can their photo appearance “match” their listed driver’s license gender. Kitzmiller and Skinner are listed as men on their licenses.
“Normally, if a customer comes in with the court order designating a gender change, it is handled discreetly at the local office and the information is changed,” Dale said. “The customer leaves the office with what the circuit court judge has directed and the issue does not reach my desk.”
Were it only that easy. The problem here is that West Virginia will usually only allow gender change recognition if the applicant has completed gender confirmation surgery–yet, surgery is not always medically necessary for treating gender dysphoria. While usually at least some gender confirmation surgeries are required, an emphasis is placed on genital surgery, which is something that many trans people do not desire or need. In addition to this is the cost of said surgeries, which for trans women can come in somewhere around $30,000 and for trans men can run as high as $50,000.
That said, it’s rather beside the point. The women had legal and medical documents to support the facts of their gender transition and legal name change. That should be enough.
To that end, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund has written to the West Virginia DMV asking that it give both women the opportunity to have their licenses updated with their accurate gender presentation, saying that preventing them from doing so violates their constitutional rights.
“Trudy & Kristen’s freedom to express who they are as transgender women may not be restricted in this way by the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles,” TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman says in the letter. “Forcing them to remove their makeup and other items that facilitate a female gender expression before allowing them to take their driver’s license photos restricts their free speech rights in violation of state and federal constitutional protections.”
It should be noted that not every trans person faces these difficulties, that the DMV offices in West Virginia seem particularly hostile, and that when problems like this do arise then can at least in part be down to how various states differ on recognizing gender change. However, the wider DMV is at fault for failing to properly educate staff and to institute policies that guard against the kind of treatment, something that common sense could easily remedy so as to spare people the kind of treatment these two women were forced to endure.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.