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Transgender Discrimination: Business-As-Usual for Pennsylvania Transit

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CREDIT: phillyist.com / Perry Quan

There’s a group of angry people in Philadelphia that dub themselves RAGE: Riders Against Gender Exclusion. And they’re frustrated because the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) can’t stay out of their pants.

SEPTA, which provides bus, trolley, and metro services in Philadelphia and four other counties, sells weekly and monthly transit passes. People have to choose either a “male” or “female” pass, marked by gender stickers.

The policy exists to save money for SEPTA, since it makes pass sharing, a type of fraud, more difficult. If you’re a male, and you have a pass, you can’t share it with your mom, your wife, your grandma, etc. 

But if you don’t conform to traditional gender norms—and especially if you’re transgender—you’re out of luck. Each time you get on a bus or trolley, SEPTA employees are required to verify that your gender matches the sticker on your card. This can lead to some awkward situations during rush hour. But the real problem is much deeper than that.

“Primarily, we feel that this is a safety issue,” said Nico Amador, one of the founders of RAGE, in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine. “Unfortunately, queer and transgender people are still targets of homophobic violence and when a rider is called out publicly by the driver or conductor on SEPTA, it can make them more vulnerable to further harassment by passengers.”

If we lived in a more tolerant society, maybe the stickers wouldn’t be such a big deal. Unfortunately, RAGE’s concerns are more than just paranoid speculation.

“When we first started the campaign, we called out folks to report incidents where they had run-ins with SEPTA officials or customers over the sticker issue,” says Max Ray, a member of RAGE. “We got dozens of stories and several had really clear instances where somebody felt incredibly threatened either by the driver or fellow passengers.”

One story that stood out, according to Ray, involved a woman who routinely rides the same train at the same time each day, commuting to class and Temple. The conductor would ask her, “Is that really your pass? You don’t look female enough.” When she got off the train, other passengers would follow and verbally harass her.

“She felt very threatened and the situation could have escalated,” Ray said.

Ray, who made a female-to-male gender transition, said his own experiences have been troubling. Back when he used a female pass, other passengers would notice and make comments like, “Oh, look, it’s a he-she. You think you’re a she?”

“That time, the driver said nothing,” Ray said. “All I had to do was get the pass out of my wallet and swipe it. People saw the orange sticker and went off immediately. If they hadn’t gotten off the trolley before me, I don’t know what I would have done.”

In other documented cases, transgender riders have had their passes confiscated by suspicious or confused employees. In one case, a skeptical bus driver not only argued with a rider about her gender, but also engaged other passengers in the argument. Many riders—including Ray—have given up using their passes altogether. Unfortunately, paying with tokens and pocket change is not just inconvenient; it's also more expensive.

Under Philadelphia's Fair Practices Ordinance, the denial of public services to an individual based on a variety of factors, including gender identity, is illegal. SEPTA has been reported to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission (PHRC) for several discrimination cases—one of which involved the gender stickers—but they've managed to dodge responsibility, claiming the PHRC's authority does not extend to state agencies.

SETPA serves approximately 3.8 million people. It would be hard to determine how many of their customers would fall under the “transgender” label, or how many have been harassed as a result of the gender stickers.

In February, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a report, “Injustice at Every Turn,” which surveyed 6,450 transgender people across the country [PDF].

Forty-one percent of respondents reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population), with rates rising for those who were harassed or bullied in school (51 percent) or were victims of physical assault (61 percent) or sexual violence (64 percent).

Ninety percent of respondents experienced harassment at work or took actions (like hiding who they were) to avoid it. Those who expressed gender non-conformity in school (grades K-12) reported high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and sexual violence (12 percent).

More specifically, 22 percent of respondents had been harassed on a bus, train, or taxi, and four percent had been physically assaulted. When put into context, any policy that “outs” transgender people in public is problematic, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

“It’s not a problem of a few insensitive employees,” Ray said. “It’s a policy that makes an entire group of people feel singled out and in danger.”

The issue hits close to home for the transgender community in Philadelphia, where a prominent trans woman named Stacey Blahnik Lee was murdered inside her house by an unknown assailant in 2010.

According to Richard Maloney, SEPTA’s director of public affairs, SEPTA takes in $450 million in revenue each year. Eliminating gender stickers, he says, would increase the occurrence of fraud, and SEPTA officials say that it would reduce their annual revenue by millions of dollars. Still, he admits the current system is far from perfect.

“We know, even with the M/F stickers in use now, that there are instances of males transferring passes to other males, and females to other females,” Maloney says. “It’s certainly not a perfect system, but we believe it does reduce the amount of fraud.”

In 2009, RAGE launched a Facebook group and launched a petition asking Joseph Casey, SEPTA’s general manager, to promptly terminate the use of gender stickers. Over four months, the petition gathered 1,500 signatures.

SEPTA’s Citizen Advisory Committee, which issues non-binding recommendations, voted unanimously in 2009 for the elimination of gender stickers. The Youth Advisory Council, another official SEPTA body, issued the same resolution two years later. Nonetheless, SETPA’s policy hasn’t changed.

In Oct. 2009, when representatives of RAGE met with Casey and other SEPTA officials, Casey refused to eliminate the gender stickers but assured them that the stickers would be obsolete as soon as SEPTA switched to a more modern fare system, based on electronic “smart cards.” It would be the best of both worlds: discrimination-free and without fraud. Unfortunately, a lack of federal funding has delayed the process.

“We hope to be awarding the contract in the next couple of months for our new payment system,” Maloney said last week. “Our target is to have it up and running in two to three years.”

Members of RAGE remain skeptical and frustrated.

“They told us two years ago that the system would be in place within a year,” Ray said. “They’ve been pushing it back and pushing it back. Meanwhile, they haven’t done anything to help with the issues already happening with their cards and we think they can just take those stickers off.”

To people like Ray and their allies, SEPTA’s refusal to remove the gender stickers, despite their unintended consequences, is a small part of a much greater problem. Transgender people, even within the LGBT community, are one of the world’s most widely marginalized and misunderstood groups of people. Discrimination and hate crimes against them are often misreported and overlooked.

For some, turning fear into activism may be the answer. “There just haven’t been enough situations where the transgender community has stood up and taken direct action,” Ray said. “What we really want to do is make space for everyone who doesn’t fit those male and female stickers to stand up and say, hey, we’re here, and we deserve fair treatment, just like everybody else.”

Henry Taksier [@HenryTaksier] is a former editorial intern at Campus Progress and an editorial board member of The Fine Print, a progressive publication at the University of Florida. 

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