Transgender Women Threaten Lawsuit, Drive Progress at the DMV

West Virginia's updated policy makes clear that transgender people will not be asked to remove or modify aspects of their appearance.

Example of a West Virginia driver's license. (Photo: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin/Flickr)

Jul 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

A driver's license means being able to operate a vehicle, order a drink at a bar, or buy a pack of cigarettes, but Trudy Kitzmiller prefers not to use hers for any reason if she can avoid it. The photo on the 53-year-old transgender woman's driver's license doesn't reflect her gender because it was taken before she transitioned.

Her failed attempt to update her driver's license ended in humiliation when she was told to remove her makeup, long hair, and jewelry—all features of her normal appearance. Kitzmiller refused and threatened to sue the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles for sex discrimination.

Almost a year and a half later, Kitzmiller will retake her photo and regain her freedom.

On Tuesday, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund announced the West Virginia DMV's reversal of a policy that prohibited Kitzmiller from being photographed on the grounds that she was misrepresenting her identity. The new policy, as stated in a West Virginia Department of Transportation memo dated July 1, makes clear that transgender people will not be asked to remove or modify aspects of their appearance unless they obscure the face or neck.

It's a victory for Kitzmiller, but like most people, she isn't jumping for joy at the thought of making another trip to the DMV.

"It's been a long year and a half," Kitzmiller, a heavy-equipment operator who digs ditches on a pipeline six days a week, told TakePart. "I couldn't believe that something like this would happen in this country. It left scars that will live with me forever," she said.

In May, Kitzmiller and two other transgender women, Kristen Skinner and Valerie Woody, filed a notice of intent to commence civil action against the West Virginia DMV and the West Virginia Department of Transportation. The three women were among several who had reached out to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, citing discrimination they'd experienced while at the DMV in West Virginia.

Both the West Virginia DMV and the West Virginia Department of Transportation declined to comment for this story.

Skinner, a 45-year-old transgender woman from Ranson, West Virginia, said she was told by a DMV manager to remove her wig, makeup, and false eyelashes before taking a photo. But Skinner said she wasn't wearing a wig or false eyelashes. "I'm an IT professional in the government. Expectations [for appearance] there are kind of conservative, honestly," she told TakePart. Needing to update her driver's license for her job, she agreed to remove her minimal makeup for the picture. Like Kitzmiller, she'd legally changed her name and updated her social security card—her driver's license was the last step in her transition.

So, Why Should You Care? When the name and photo on a driver's license don't accurately reflect a person's identity, it's not just a matter of inaccuracy—it also has real consequences. Kitzmiller said she was denied jobs and prevented from booking motel rooms because the name and photo on her driver's license didn't match those on her credit card. "It's pretty difficult—just what people take for granted, like to get a glass of wine in a restaurant, you have to provide proof of ID to prove who you are," said Kitzmiller. "It takes your freedom away if you ain’t got that."

West Virginia's policy reversal comes on the heels of a similar policy update in April at the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, where a transgender teen was told to remove her makeup before taking a driver's license photo. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund filed a federal lawsuit and won a settlement. The teen took her new driver's license photo last week.

Each state DMV has its own policies about changing the gender listed on a driver's license, and about half have eliminated surgical requirements entirely, according to the nonprofit LGBT advocacy organization Lambda Legal. But it's not always easy to make changes on official government documents. About a quarter of transgender Americans report being denied equal treatment at a government agency or by a government official, according to a 2011 survey by leading transgender advocates.