Transgender women ‘humiliated’ at W.Va. DMV offices

Kristen Skinner, 45, is a transgender woman who says she was treated unfairly by Division of Motor Vehicle employees when she attempted to renew her driver's license.
Trudy Kitzmiller, 52, is a transgender woman who says she was treated unfairly by Division of Motor Vehicle employees when she attempted to renew her driver's license.

When Trudy Kitzmiller and Kristen Skinner visited two separate Division of Motor Vehicles offices in the Eastern Panhandle earlier this year, they thought they’d leave with up-to-date driver’s licenses.

They weren’t prepared for the discrimination they’d endure when DMV employees discovered the women are transgender.

“The DMV staff humiliated me,” Kitzmiller, 52, said. “They called me ‘it.’”

Kitzmiller visited the Martinsburg DMV on May 10 while Skinner visited the Charles Town office in January. Both were attempting to comply with state law that says driver’s licenses must be updated after a legal name change.

Both women are transitioning from male to female and wear makeup and jewelry on a daily basis as part of their new identities, and both had obtained court orders documenting the legal name changes. They thought their new driver’s license photos should reflect their daily appearances, but DMV staffers in the Martinsburg and Charles Town offices refused to photograph the women unless they removed their jewelry and makeup.

“They told me I could not have my photo taken as my true self,” Kitzmiller said. “I left the DMV very depressed.”

Skinner, 45, received the same treatment at the Charles Town office. She was told men could not wear makeup in their driver’s license photos and was asked to remove her wig and false eyelashes, although her hair and eyelashes are natural.

“I was kind of shocked by that statement,” Skinner said. “I asked why I would have to remove my makeup and was told males aren’t allowed to wear makeup for their pictures, but it’s OK for females. Obviously it was upsetting. But I really didn’t have any choice. I needed updated identification. So I took off my makeup and eventually they took my picture and now I have a license that doesn’t look how I look on a daily basis.”

Acting DMV Commissioner Steve Dale said the DMV cannot, according to state law, allow individuals to be photographed as portraying something they are not. Because Kitzmiller and Skinner are still biologically male, they could not legally be depicted as female in their photos.

“Where the challenge comes in this particular situation is their driving records still indicated they were male but they wish to be portrayed as females in their photos,” he said. “Of course, the photo on your driver’s license is a form of identification, it matches you with the drivers license and any type of apparel or attempt to portray yourself as someone you’re not or to conceal your identity would be prohibited.”

Dale said DMV employees make the call to determine if an individual is attempting to conceal his or her true identity through makeup, dress or accessories. They sometimes also do visual comparisons using past data and photos to determine if the person is who they claim they are. Because Kitzmiller and Skinner both began their transition from male to female in the past year, their most recent driver’s license photos depict them as men.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in New York, is advocating on the women’s behalf. In a letter to the West Virginia DMV, Executive Director Michael Silverman said the staffers’ actions infringed on the women’s right of free speech and freedom of expression.

“Forcing them to remove their makeup and other items that facilitate a female gender expression before allowing them to take their driver’s license photo restricts their free speech rights in violation of state and federal constitutional protections,” the letter states.

“Trudy and Kristen’s message was accurately understood by DMV staff members who were concerned that they would not appear to be typically male in their license photos,” Silverman wrote. “That they know themselves to be female and are content with themselves is the very message that Trudy and Kristen were conveying through their gender expression.”

However, state law says transgender individuals must go through a complete change, including an operation, to change their gender on a driver’s license. As a result, the photo depicted on the license must reflect the biological sex of the individual, according to Dale. If a full transition occurs, Dale said the DMV does not require medical information or any other document except a court order. The license renewal is handled discreetly at the local office.

“Had the individuals in question had the gender change indicated in the circuit court order, it would have been processed at the local office and the customer would have left the office with the gender change and the name change,” Dale said.

The DMV is investigating the situation, Dale said, and employees undergo sensitivity and diversity training periodically.

“Every one of our customers deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy, and if I have found that we treated the customers in question with anything less, I will apologize,” Dale said. “To refer to another human being as ‘it’ is not acceptable in any setting. Our employees take diversity training and should be sensitive to these issues.”

However, the only way to change the rule is through legislative action. That means Kitzmiller and Skinner remain in limbo as they won’t be able to procure driver’s licenses that depict them as women unless they go through a complete sex change operation. However, those procedures can be expensive, and without a license Kitzmiller, a heavy machine operator, is struggling to find work.

“I just want my driver’s license. That’s what I’m after,” she said. “I need a driver’s license so I can get back to work and be a productive member of society, pay my taxes, come home and live in peace. That’s it.”

Silverman said if the DMV does not allow the women to retake driver’s license photos reflecting their everyday appearance as females, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund will consider legal action.

“Trudy and Kristen are transgender women and they just want to be able to have their license photos reflect who they truly are as women,” Silverman said. “They have been on long journeys to get to a place where there are comfortable and happy with who they are. They are being open and honest about that and they want their photos to reflect who they are and what they look like on a daily basis. It’s not fair for the government of West Virginia to tell them they have to meet some expectation the DMV has of what they should look like, especially when they’re told they have to look like men in their photos.”

Both women said they are hopeful they can put the situation behind them and move on. But they want people to realize transgender individuals deserve the same respect as everyone else.

“Transgender people are like everybody else and want to be treated like everybody else,” Skinner said. “I’m not asking for special privileges. I want an ID that looks like me and to be treated like everybody else.

Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or whitney.burdette@dailymailwv.com. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.

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