Transgender woman files privacy claim against DMV

by Lisa Leff

Associated Press

Friday December 10, 2010

A transgender woman on Thursday filed a claim against the California Department of Motor Vehicles, saying the clerk who handled her application for a new driver's license sent her a letter at home calling her gender change a "very evil decision" that would condemn her to hell.

Amber Yust, 23, said the clerk at the department's San Francisco office processed her application for a license with her female name in October.

She received the letter addressed to her old name, David, four days later. It identified the writer as the person who processed Yust's application.

"Although I helped you with the name change, I have to say I do not support the reason for it," says the letter, signed with only a first name and typed on plain paper. "I also do not believe the state's recognition of it - through official documents - makes it legitimate or any less evil."

Yust alleges the clerk used a state database to find her home address. She said she also received a pamphlet from a New York-based conservative Catholic ministry to whom she thinks the DMV clerk furnished her address.

Yust took the first step toward suing the DMV by filing the claim stating that its employee's actions violated her privacy and civil rights, and seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

"Going into a DMV isn't exactly a fun experience," she said. "So to have someone who dislikes something about you or has some strange interest in you decide to use your personal information for something other than what it was supposed to is really scary. I want people to feel safe."

DMV spokesman Mike Marando declined comment on the matter because it involves pending litigation and a personnel matter. Marando said the department has been investigating Yust's allegations since it was alerted six weeks go.

All DMV employees are trained to be sensitive to transgender Californians who, like Yust, have obtained the necessary paperwork to have their driver's licenses changed to reflect their new names and genders, he said.

"This is something we are taking very seriously," Marando said. "Generally, and not speaking specific to this case, employees are not allowed to contact customers offline. They are not allowed to access department records or databases unless it's specific to the business at hand."

Yust's lawyer, Chris Dolan, said he and staff members at the nonprofit Transgender Law Center in San Francisco think the worker who wrote Yust is a DMV clerk who was disciplined last year for allegedly telling another transgender woman that he did not want to help her and "God will send you to hell."

Transgender Law Center Kristina Wertz said the August 2009 incident produced an apology from a regional DMV administrator and an opportunity for the center to provide additional transgender sensitivity training at the San Francisco office.

"We really gave the DMV the benefit of the doubt at the outset in addressing the previous incident of discrimination," Wertz said. "When we first heard that this person was still permitted to be working with the public when it was known he harbored feelings of bias against transgender individuals and was actively hostile to them, we were pretty angry."

Yust said the clerk who assisted her at the DMV on Oct. 21 was "standoffish" but not rude. He claimed there was a "mismatch" with her Social Security records and made her get a clarification letter, but Yust left the DMV office with her new license. When she got the letter, which was sent without a return address, she was alarmed.

"My initial feeling was like the shock of, 'What is this?' And after it had a little time to sink in, it was really hurtful," she said. "The fact there are people out there willing to send that kind of thing to anyone is really amazing."

Along with damages and attorney's fees, Yust plans to seek a court order requiring the DMV to prevent future discrimination, Dolan said.

"If it was an African-American who went to the DMV and the DMV person sent a letter saying you should be lynched and then sent the address to the KKK, people would be going berserk," Dolan said. "That's exactly what happened here, but you just insert the word transgender for black and religious fanatic for KKK."

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