Gay Man Battles State of Virginia to Keep “Poofter” License Plate


Towleroad readers may be acquainted with the face of David Phillips. He’s the Washington D.C. bear who two weeks ago came forward claiming he had some messy sex two decades ago with Idaho Senator Larry Craig.

Phillips is making headlines again, this time for his refusal to hand over license plates issued by the state of Virginia which he has had on his car for 11 years. The plates say “Poofter” which most here probably know is slang, sometimes derogatory, for a gay man.

Phillips tells the Washington Post that “it’s just an amusing word that I self-identify with.”

Writes the paper: “The commonwealth of Virginia is not amused. It gave Phillips his vanity plates in error, Carolyn Easley, coordinator of the special license plates office, wrote in a recent letter. ‘You may have grown fond of your personalized plates,’ but they are ‘socially, racially or ethnically offensive or disparaging’ and ‘you must return them.’ There was no explanation for why it took Virginia 11 years to figure out what ‘poofter’ means.”

According to the WaPo, “hundreds of battles over personalized plates have used up untold government resources in a strange corner of the law that has some of the nation’s top courts issuing contradictory rulings” and the ruling often comes down to personal viewpoints vs. obscenity: “One federal appeals court ordered Missouri to approve ‘ARYAN-1,’ saying the state ‘may not censor a license plate because its message might make people angry.’ In Vermont, however, a federal appeals court said the state could ban scatological terms because that doesn’t involve quashing any viewpoint. In Virginia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit prohibited the state from banning a Confederate flag logo on a special license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans because that would be viewpoint discrimination.”

Phillips, who is scheduled to appear at a hearing over the plates in Richmond, says he has no intention of returning the “poofter” plates.

A Vehicle for Self-Expression? Not on These Roads. [washington post]


  1. Paul says

    Is David Philips having some sort of midlife crisis that requires him to seek all sorts of media attention?

    I was born and raised in Virginia. It’s a terrible place these days.

  2. jake says

    Poof is a derogatory term for gay, mainly used in the UK. But then, fanny over there means a woman’s genitals. Since most people here don’t associate the word with that meaning, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

  3. Matt says

    I had no clue what that meant either. This is how I look at it. Why would any self-respecting gay man want a derogatory slang term on his license plate. It would be like a black man having nigger or hispanic man having spic on his plate.

  4. A Cairns says

    I can’t believe I’m saying this – but I agree with the State of Virginia!? As a gay Australian, I find that word offensive. (It’s also fortunate for him that his red-neck neighbours don’t know that word!)

  5. little edie says

    the state of virginia finds the plate offensive? isn’t virginia a fairly awful place for gay folks to live? from what i know, virginia isn’t too concerned about the rights of gays. maybe the dmv should worry more about offensive laws the state has?

  6. Rey says

    Little Edie is right on.

    Virginia, being a place for haters, would probably much rather he have FAGGOT on his license plate. Poofter is probably a little too clever for them.

  7. says

    Poof, puff, poofter and variants is the Brit (and Aussie) equivalent of fag. “Puff” was the principle form of homophobic abuse when I was at school. It may sound mild but the intent behind its use rarely has been, especially when it’s preceded by the word “fucking” and followed by a punch.

  8. anon ( says

    Generally speaking you can’t turn the state into your publisher, first amendment or no. He could easily get a bumper sticker that says whatever he likes. The states have only themselves to blame, trying to raise money thru vanity plates and special issue plates. Politicians themselves fight over vanity plates like crazy (Rhode Island is the worst), with plates having just “1” on them reserved for governors and the like.

    If memory serves (and to reverse myself a tad), courts have ruled that the registration and inspection process for car safety gives the states the power to ban private messages on cars, such as bumper stickers that would say “White Power” or “Kill Fags”, not to mention all sorts of regulations on commercial speech (“Eat at Joe’s”). This probably violates the first amendment, but the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that state regulatory authority in regards to public safety trumps the first amendment.

  9. scientitian says

    This guy seems like a really obnoxious media whore. They probably noticed because of all the freakin publicity this dude has drawn to himself. If you claim to have had sex with a US senator, you can expect some of the details of your life to be scrutinized. Too bad.

  10. dc10001 says

    1. A person who demonstrates an exaggerated conformity or propriety, especially in an irritatingly arrogant or smug manner.

    There’s a whole unfortunate strain of gay prigs on this site who post carping, judgmental comments about a story like this.
    Yes Paul, Cripsy, Matt and esp. Scientitian, I’m calling you out.

    I see this tendency as part of the fallout from the AIDS trauma we suffered as a subculture. Many of us are so shut down in post-traumatic fear that we reflexively lash out at any among us who are different, or who remind us who we are and what we’ve been through.

    What is this Phillips truly guilty of here? Self-expression. Tweaking conventions at the DMV. How grievous! You who seek to shut him down because you don’t approve need to look at your own complexes.

  11. Paul says

    DC10001, call me out all you want. I’ve always been “different,” and it has little to do with being gay. I’m a freak—but a smart one.

    If you honestly think the ultimate strain of “self-expression” is a vanity license plate, an unverified/unprovable claim you slept with Larry Craig, and “tweaking conventions at the DMV” (yeah wow that really is a deep, powerful response to AIDS trauma), then you need to learn true expression. Getting attention doesn’t equal deserving attention. I don’t need to approve of every fag who wants his picture in the paper for crap of very dubious worth.

    And if you honestly think that gays are calling each other’s shit because of AIDS, maybe you need to learn something about the pre-AIDS era. Gays, like any minority group, aren’t always going to sing together in perfect harmony. Thank god. Diversity of opinion is to be enjoyed, not despised. I’m happy to be a prig if it’s people like you calling me it.

  12. dc10001 says

    P. I’d LOVE to run into a smart freak. I don’t get smart or freak out of your bitter and mean-spirited posts.

    You got your panties into such a knot into paragraph 2, you got yourself all turned around! Let me break it down for you, with love and patience:

    “If you honestly think the ultimate strain of “self-expression” is a vanity license plate…”- I never said that. I just said it was self expression. I’m frankly not that interested in vanity plates. I walk to work.

    “”tweaking conventions at the DMV” (yeah wow that really is a deep, powerful response to AIDS trauma)…”- I did not suggest that the vanity plate was Phillips’ response to AIDS trauma; I theorized that the priggishness YOU and others reacted with results from our collective AIDS trauma. Maybe you should read slower and mouth the words to yourself?

    “I don’t need to approve of every fag…” No you don’t need to ‘approve’, but you don’t have to be such a bitch. There’s a difference. Show some love for your brothers.

  13. Will says

    I have to take issue with those who say Virginia is a terrible place to be gay. True, the Republican legislature passed some horrible bills invovling gay issues a few years ago, but the state has been trending very blue in the past several elections, and we’ve had two progressive Democratic governors in a row. With any luck, control of the Virginia legislature will go back to the Democrats, and we can get these idiotic laws off the books. At least we’re heading in the right direction.

  14. k says

    Have to agree with you Will…. the problem is, there are really two states — the DC suburbs (Northern VA and Charlottesville) and the rest of the state. One is very liberal and welcoming (and voting against the same-sex marriage ban) and the other much more conservative. But… there is a definite change in the air. More that likely, both US Senators, instead of just the one there now, will be Democrats. And the state legislature looks to be heading for a major change.

    About the license plate controversy… my understanding was that once one had been issued, no action is ever further taken on it until a complaint from another driver is made. I don’t know a single straight person who knows what a poofter is. Something seems very odd about all of this.

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