Actress and activist Laverne Cox recently became the first transgender person in the nation to appear on the cover of Time Magazine. This past week she made history again, receiving an Emmy nomination, the first-ever by a transgender person, for her role in the immensely popular Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.”
As Cox’s success illustrates, transgender Americans continue to gain positive visibility and that has led to increased understanding and acceptance.
But transgender people still face daunting challenges just trying to live their lives and participate fully in society. Two stark and nearly identical situations at the Division of Motor Vehicles offices in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia demonstrate the obstacles that remain.
Both Trudy Kitzmiller and Kristen Skinner were met with hostility and harassment when they tried to update their driver’s licenses to match their true identities as transgender women.
Kitzmiller and Skinner were both labelled male at birth. And it’s taken them until adulthood to fully come to terms with being transgender. They both found themselves at a point where they were living openly as the women they truly are and where they were ready to legally change their names to female names that match their identities.
When Kitzmiller and Skinner received their West Virginia court orders changing their names, they each went to the DMV to update their driver’s licenses, which had their old male names and their old male pictures.
Kitzmiller, a resident of Mount Storm, went to the Martinsburg DMV office, and Skinner, who lives in Ranson, went to the DMV office in Charles Town. They arrived at the offices looking the way they do every day as they interact with friends, family and co-workers.
At both offices, DMV staff members called the women “it” and told them to take off their wigs, makeup and jewelry before they would take their license photos. Kitzmiller protested and did not want to remove her wig or makeup. She knew that she was being mistreated because of who she is, and she knew that was wrong.
The DMV refused to take her picture the way she ordinarily looks. She left the office feeling depressed, with her old driver’s license that does not reflect her legal name or appearance. This has created great difficulty for her when applying for jobs, which require that she provide accurate identification. Lack of work is leading to financial hardship for Kitzmiller.
DMV staff told Skinner that men cannot be photographed for a driver’s license photo wearing makeup. She was also told to remove false eyelashes and wig, neither of which she was wearing. Despite what she perceived to be degrading treatment, Skinner eventually wiped off her makeup and DMV staff took her license photo. It does not reflect how she looks on a daily basis.
Skinner and Kitzmiller contacted the organization I lead, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, for help. As executive director, I sent a letter to the DMV explaining that the actions of DMV staff restricted Skinner and Kitzmiller’s freedom to express who they are as transgender women – in violation of state and federal law.
Skinner and Kitzmiller are simply asking to have their driver’s license photos look like them. Having a license photo that looks like someone else (in this case, someone male) creates problems every time the license is shown.
Other states handle situations like this better. Here is Texas’s policy, as one example: “In some cases, however, persons identify themselves as transgender and are in the process of living full time as the opposite sex. In this situation the photograph should reflect the appearance of this person as they represent themselves in their daily lives.”
It is a simple and reasonable policy that could easily be emulated in West Virginia.
Kitzmiller and Skinner spent most of their lives hiding who they truly are as transgender women. They hid from their families, their friends and from their communities. They have come to a point in their lives where they are living openly as transgender women.
The West Virginia DMV should update its photo standards to ensure that transgender people can get to driver’s licenses without obstruction and harassment. We are standing by these brave women to help make that happen.
– Michael Silverman is the executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. The organization is committed to ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression and to achieving equality for transgender people through public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services and public policy efforts