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West Virginia DMV changes photo policy after transgender women threaten lawsuit

The West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles will no longer dictate how transgender residents can dress for driver’s license photos, reversing a policy that many LGBT advocates consider unconstitutional.

The state formally changed its policy July 1 after three transgender women threatened to sue, saying they were harassed or forced to remove makeup while trying to update their driver’s license information last year, according to the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented them.

The policy shift, announced Tuesday, marks the second time in recent months that a state has relaxed rules requiring transgender men and women to alter their usual appearance for identification photos.

Kristen Skinner, a 45-year-old information technology professional for the federal government, is one of the three. In an interview, she said a manager at the Charles Town DMV repeatedly called her “it” and ordered her to remove her makeup last year when she tried to update her photo.

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FOR THE RECORD

July 7, 12:03 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said five transgender women had threatened to sue the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles. Five transgender women contacted the Transgender Legal Defense & Education fund to inform them of the West Virginia's alleged discriminatory policies, but only three threatened to sue.

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“It is such a critical thing to us,” said Skinner, who lives in Ranson, W.Va. “It’s not an easy process coming to terms with this, and to have somebody else more or less invalidate you at the state level is horrible.”

Under the new policy, driver’s license applicants “will not be asked to remove or modify makeup, clothing, hair style or hairpiece(s)” for photos. Calls to the West Virginia DMV for more information were not immediately returned.

DMV officials in South Carolina made a similar policy change this year after settling a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by a 16-year-old transgender girl.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the changes in West Virginia and South Carolina showed that government officials were being forced to become more cognizant of the way they treated transgender people.

“I’m comfortable saying that we are seeing a change in the world around us. We are hearing more public discussion about transgender people from Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, who are shining a light on the unique challenges that transgender people face,” Silverman said, referring to the “Orange Is the New Black” star and the former Olympian, who have become two of the most visible transgender personalities in the U.S.

The struggle of transgender individuals to obtain proper identification photos is a practical issue as well as a civil rights issue. A gender-conflicted driver’s license photo can harm a person’s ability to work or receive proper employment benefits, among other things, Silverman said.

Skinner had to accept her new driver’s license photo to update her federal identification for work, but another of the five women refused.

“That’s the most humiliation I ever got in my life was that day down there at the DMV,” said Trudy Kitzmiller, 53, a West Virginia native.

Kitzmiller, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, often travels for work. The out-of-date name and driver’s license photo sometimes prompted motels to refuse her a room, she said. The name Trudy appears on her credit card, but she is still identified as male on the driver’s license.

It is not clear how many state DMVs force people to conform to gender norms for a driver’s license photo, Silverman said.

Skinner said several of her transgender friends in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia were allowed to dress as they chose for identification photos. In Texas, state DMV policy explicitly orders employees to allow transgender people to be photographed as they appear on a daily basis.

The California DMV has a similar policy, agency spokesman Jaime Garza said. An applicant would not be asked to remove any articles of clothing, glasses or makeup unless it obscured his or her face in some way, Garza said.

Skinner said she was relieved that others wouldn’t face the same embarrassment she did at the Charles Town DMV.

“We’re just normal people who want to live our lives and do our thing and not have others judge what we should look like or what we should be,” she said.

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