SEPTA’s Transgender Debate

A local group is calling for an end to gender identification on transit passes

She lives her life as a woman. But she can’t seem to convince SEPTA of that. Instead, the transgender SEPTA rider says she’s regularly discriminated against on the regional rail because of the gender ID stickers the transit authority insists on using on its passes.

And for many transgender passengers, the irony of the “trans” pass regularly impacts their daily commutes – negatively.

“I constantly receive questions from conductors and ticket agents about my gender in front of other passengers,” says the woman. “One time a conductor actually stopped me in front of a crowded rush hour train accusing me of using the ‘wrong pass.’ In front of everyone on the train, he said, ‘What are you trying to do here?’ At first I didn’t realize what he was talking about so he repeated it a second and third time, until I had to say to him, ‘I’m a woman.’ Needless to say, it was quite embarrassing and degrading.”

Nico Amador, one of the founders of Philly’s RAGE (Riders Against Gender Exclusion) is trying to persuade SEPTA to do away with the antiquated gender markers for transgender and queer pass holders. Not only does Amador say the identification is outdated, but he charges that it discriminates and endangers transgender riders.

The ID system also makes it difficult for many transgender passengers to buy SEPTA passes. “Almost every time I went to Market East station to buy my Trans Pass, I would get an ‘F’ sticker,” says one transgender male rider. “I would ask for an ‘M’ sticker and have to fight with the workers to get it.”

Amador sat down with G Philly to discuss why the gender stickers are discriminatory – and what he plans to do to eliminate them:

What’s the main issue you’re focusing on with SEPTA?

The main issue that we’re focusing on with SEPTA is getting them to discontinue the use of M/F gender stickers on weekly and monthly Trans and Trail passes because of the instances of harassment this has caused for members of the transgender community and other riders who might be somewhat androgynous in their gender presentation. The elderly and people with disabilities also receive special passes that are color-coded by gender and this has also been a problem for some people. SEPTA has said they will remove the stickers once a new fare card system is implemented, but that won’t be finished for three years. We believe that the issue is significant enough that SEPTA should remove the stickers as soon as possible.

Why is this such an important issue for Philly’s transgender community?

Primarily, we feel that this is a safety issue. 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 other passengers. We also feel that this is a discrimination issue. Riders are being refused the use of a pass that they paid for themselves, and those passes are costly. We feel that paying riders should not have to experience interrogation or questioning about their gender in order to use public transportation.

How would you like SEPTA to handle gender identity in the future?

Our overarching goal is for SEPTA to ensure that all of their riders are treated with respect by SEPTA employees and that they are creating an environment where all riders feel safe while using public transportation. We hope that SEPTA will discontinue the use of the gender stickers and, in the future, not use gender-based forms of identification in their systems. We’ve suggested to SEPTA that they also provide training for their drivers, conductors and ticket agents to make them more sensitive to trans identities.

What are some of the steps you’re taking to make this happen?

We have had two public actions to bring awareness to this issue and met with several SEPTA officials, including the General Manager Joe Casey. So far they have not taken any meaningful steps to resolve the issue. We have also drafted a Rider’s Bill of Rights that has been endorsed by over 20 Philadelphia community organizations and State Representative Babette Josephs. This summer we are launching a membership campaign with the goal of getting 3,000 SEPTA users in the Philadelphia area to pledge their support for our campaign and also commit to watching out for the safety of other riders on SEPTA.

How does the issue with SEPTA help raise awareness about gender identity and trans issues in Philly?

I think that we’re showing that the transgender community, which used to be very underground, is now a more public community and that many institutions, not just transit agencies, can expect that they may need to make changes in how they operate in order to take into account people who have or are transitioning. These are needs that we are not going to allow to be marginalized anymore. Also, I think that we’re showing that rigid notions of gender are outdated. Trans people are not the only people who are impacted by this policies, there are many other people who are choosing to express themselves and their gender in a way that doesn’t fit traditional norms and that’s a beautiful, liberating thing. I just hope that we’re able to make space for that in our society.