It’s now OK to put GAY or QUEER on an NC vanity license plate, DMV says

For years, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles has built up a lengthy “Do Not Issue” list of terms and phrases it won’t put on vanity license plates because someone might find them offensive.

Now, for the first time anyone can remember, the DMV has taken items off the list. The 239 terms recently redeemed in the eyes of the DMV include GAY, LESBIAN, QUEER, GAYPRIDE and several others used by LGBTQ people.

DMV Commissioner Wayne Goodwin ordered a review of the Do Not Issue list last summer, after the agency received national attention for recalling a FART personalized plate that had slipped past its screening process. At the same time, Goodwin said, someone asked why certain LGBTQ terms were prohibited on North Carolina license plates.

“Not knowing how long that list has been around but realizing there have been great strides on the matter of equality, I believed that we needed to address and update, to the extent appropriate, what appeared on that list,” Goodwin said in an interview. “That’s when I realized that the list is as vast as it is.”

There are close to 10,000 items on the Do Not Issue list, and the number grows monthly as people come up with new offensive terms or variations on old ones. A standing committee that includes representatives from the state Attorney General’s Office and DMV’s legal department and office of civil rights reviews complaints about personalized plates and recommends additions to the banned list, said DMV spokesman Marty Homan.

“They’ll Google whatever it is and use urban dictionary to see if there’s any sort of inappropriate meaning to what someone is requesting, if it is not obvious,” Homan said. “If it’s a curse word and they just switched out the I’s and S’s with ones and fives, that’s pretty obvious.”

To review the list for terms that should be removed, DMV appointed an internal committee and gave it several months to go through all 10,000 words and phrases. The review, first reported by Triad public radio station WFDD, was completed in December.

It’s not clear how LGBTQ terms got on the list

The Do Not Issue list has been around for at least 20 years, but no one now at DMV recalls exactly when it started, Homan said. The list, kept in an Excel spreadsheet, does not record when a term was added or any explanation about why.

The 239 words recently removed from the list include some head-scratchers. Among the formerly banned terms are BAD, JESUIT, SEAFUD, TABASCO and YNKEE.

Presumably someone along the line thought now acceptable LGBTQ terms such as GAYGUY or KINDAGAY were offensive or in poor taste. Goodwin said it’s possible someone at the agency thought they were protecting drivers from abuse by prohibiting LGBTQ words on their cars or trucks.

Equality North Carolina, a statewide advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, welcomed the DMV’s decision to allow their use, but said it would like the agency to go further. Among the LGBTQ terms still on the list are BISEXUAL and GAYLIB.

“The institutionalization of LGBTQ+ discrimination has resulted repeatedly in non-inclusive practices in the state of North Carolina and beyond, so it is unsurprising that anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment extends even to the restriction of LGBTQ+ phrases on personalized license plates,” EqualityNC’s executive director, Kendra Johnson, wrote in a statement. “We are happy to see that the DMV listened to the public and reevaluated restrictions on LGBTQ+ phrases, but we hope to see all phrases that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community removed from the list and for inclusion to extend fully to this area.”

DMV must screen thousands of vanity plates

As of Wednesday, there were 322,163 vanity license plates in circulation in North Carolina, about 3% of all plated vehicles on the road. An owner pays an extra $30 for a personalized plate and has up to eight characters to play with. The DMV’s application form encourages owners to “Be original, be creative!”

Policing all that creativity is not easy. After receiving complaints, the DMV recently recalled eight personalized plates with terms it agreed were antisemitic, including ARYAN and several variations.

The committee recommended removing ASL from the Do Not Issue list. But what to some is an abbreviation for American Sign Language, Goodwin said, could also be a reference to “age, sex, location,” slang used in chatrooms and instant messaging as a prelude to a sexual encounter. ASL remains on the banned list.

“It is easy to find oneself going down a rabbit hole,” Goodwin said. “But the alternative is for plates to pop up that shock, that harm, that impugn, that offend not only the public but would cause grievous harm to the good name of the State of North Carolina.”

Now that the DMV has reversed its position on 239 banned terms, it has a process in place for doing it in the future as people make a case for individual words and phrases, Goodwin said.

But the DMV will continue to have the last word. The agency reminds vehicle owners that the Supreme Court has determined that state-issued license plates are “government speech,” even if someone else chose the eight characters and paid $30 to put them on their car.