CA DMV rejects leather vanity plate

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 20, 2019
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A vanity plate reading "LTHR DDY" was rejected by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Illustration: Ernesto Sopprani
A vanity plate reading "LTHR DDY" was rejected by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Illustration: Ernesto Sopprani

The leather lifestyle is apparently too sexual for officials with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

In rejecting a San Francisco resident's request for a vanity license plate that would have been shorthand for "leather daddy," the DMV noted the phrase's "sexual connotation" and how it can be read "as a term of lust or depravity" in the letter it sent to Robert Haynes in January explaining its decision.

Haynes, shocked by the agency's reasoning, contacted the office of gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) for help in winning approval for the "LTHR DDY" vanity license plate he would like to attach to his 2015 Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle.

"I understood when I submitted this the term could be controversial. But for it to be a lustful or depraved reference is missing the scope of leather culture," Haynes, 38, told the Bay Area Reporter. "And it is kind of endemic of how people take leather culture from the outside and immediately relate it to sexual as being exclusive to the entire lifestyle."

Living in a state as progressive as California, which has been on the vanguard of LGBT rights in recent years, Haynes was shocked by the DMV's stated purpose for its rejection.

"I would expect this perhaps in other parts of the country," he said. "But I really thought California was a little more open-minded and less dualistic in seeing everything as a good and bad binary if you will."

Wiener told the B.A.R. that the decision made by the DMV as stated in the letter is based on homophobic notions of what a leather daddy is. He sent a letter to DMV officials demanding that they approve Haynes' vanity plate.

"If it doesn't, I will turn this into a big deal," said Wiener, who last year received an apology from a neighborhood newspaper in San Francisco after it was accused of homophobia for running a photo of the lawmaker shirtless but adorned in a leather vest alongside a story on a controversial housing bill he had authored. "If this is an intentional decision, and I am hoping it is not, but if the agency stands by this decision that is a big problem. That would be very disrespectful of the LGBT community and leather community, and frankly, would be homophobic."

DMV officials did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment by deadline this week. Last Friday, the agency informed Wiener it had received his letter and was "in the process of drafting a reply at this time."

Robert Haynes' application for a vanity license plate for his motorcycle was denied by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Photo: Courtesy Robert Haynes  

Haynes is not overly involved with the leather community or a leader of a leather group or organization. He did compete in the 2011 International Mr. Leather contest as Mr. Bolt representing the Bolt bar in Sacramento, where he was living at the time. But he does consider himself to be a leather daddy, despite his age, and wears leather apparel when he takes his motorcycle out for rides.

He and his partner had gotten vanity plates for the vehicles they share, one of which is based on the ruby red color of their Mazda CX3. Around the New Year holiday he submitted his request for the "LTHR DDY" plate along with the $50 fee to the DMV and shortly after received a letter informing him his application was being processed.

But then came the January 18 letter signed by A. Holmes, a program manager in the DMV's customer service program support for the California Environmental License Plate Program denying his plate, refunding him his money, and explaining how he could contest the decision.

"I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it is to balance an individual's constitutional right to free speech and expression while protecting the sensibilities of all segments of our population," read the letter. "Please understand that this is a very difficult area to regulate and that not everyone feels the same way on any given subject."

The DMV routinely rejects vanity license plate requests for a variety of reasons in addition to the one stated in the letter to Haynes. Vulgar, hostile, or racist terms are also rejected, as are swear words and terms that denigrate certain groups or law enforcement entities. In 2017 the Sacramento Bee reported that the state agency receives 20,000 requests a month for specialty plates and that it had denied three quarters of the 12,000 license plates flagged for review in the last half of 2016.

Nonetheless, when Wiener read the letter the DMV had sent to Haynes, his "jaw dropped" at the reasoning stated.

"I was really floored that a California agency would boil the whole concept of leather daddy down to depravity or lust," said Wiener. "Being part of the leather community is about so much more than sexuality. It is about diversity, freedom, and people being who they are."

San Francisco not only embraces the leather community, noted Wiener, it celebrates it and is working to protect its longtime home in the city's South of Market neighborhood by establishing an LGBT cultural district in the area. Just last week city leaders approved a permit for a public parklet that will commemorate the leather community. Wiener referenced those efforts in his letter, dated February 11, to former acting DMV Director Bill Davidson.

"The leather community is a central part of San Francisco's identity," wrote Wiener, adding that the "incredibly diverse" community includes all facets of LGBT people "committed to individual self-expression and diversity."

He noted that leather men and women played a crucial part in the community's response to the AIDS epidemic and continue to have vital roles in everything from nightlife and cultural events to activism on myriad issues.

"To be clear, sexuality, of course, plays a role in the leather community, as it does and should in other communities," wrote Wiener. "Sexuality is a normal part of human existence and something to be celebrated, not shunned or shamed. Yet, DMV's response boils the leather community and the concept of leather daddy down to sex and sex alone. That is inaccurate."

Haynes sent his own letter protesting the DMV's decision and is refusing to cash the refund check the agency sent him. He remains hopeful it will reverse course on its decision so he can install his vanity plate in time for this year's AIDS/LifeCycle ride.

A former six-time participant in the annual fundraiser for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Los Angeles LGBT Center, he is volunteering a second time this June as part of the Moto Safety crew. It is a group of motorcycle riders who not only assist with protecting the bicyclists along the route but also raise money themselves for the two agencies.